I’ve bumped into Richard Branson a couple of times now, in vastly different settings. The first was in the high-Arctic village of Clyde River, when I was on assignment for National Geographic Adventure and Branson had come to join his son Sam for a weeklong dogsled expedition. He introduced himself with what he admitted was a rather weak pinky-tap, blaming it on an injury incurred while rolling an ATV at his African safari camp the week before.
When we met again a few days ago on a beach in the Maldives, he extended his pinky once again, but this time he blamed it on a nasty cold, which he was politely attempting not to spread.
Branson had flown in for a few days to participate in the SLOWLIFE Symposium, as had I. Ironically he’d arrived by British Air from London, rather than aboard his own Virgin, which doesn’t fly to the capital of the Maldives, Male. Given his longstanding competition and high-level squabbles with BA, he joked that he’d brought along his own “food taster.” I assumed he wasn’t referring to his lovely wife, Joan, who accompanied him.
During the course of three days spent in sessions, where 80 or so people participated in debate and conversation about subjects ranging from the consequences of not taking climate change seriously to the energy future of small island states, Branson sat in on every one, taking notes in a small, red notebook and participating in roundtable debates.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t have enough to do that might have kept him otherwise occupied: The bankruptcy of the American solar company Solyndra had cost him a bundle; his house on his Caribbean island paradise, Necker Island, had burned to the ground just a month ago (thanks to a lightning strike during Hurricane Irene); and in a few days time he would be outed by Wikileaks for participating in covert plots to oust Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe; announce plans to have Virgin Atlantic Airways running on recycled industrial gases by 2014; test a new submersible amongst whale sharks off the coast of Mexico; and rappel down the side of the new terminal for Virgin Galactic in New Mexico.
When it was his turn to present in the Maldives, he chose the challenge of running a transportation business—an airline and train company—while trying to limit contributions to climate change yet still make money. A relatively recent convert to environmental activism—which began with a literal housecall from Al Gore, “who did his whole Inconvenient Truth routine in my living room”—Branson has since pushed many of his various companies toward greener ethics and is the prime motivator behind both The Elders and the recently announced Ocean Elders, as well as the Carbon War Room.
The latter, he suggested, was focusing on 25 sectors for which clean technology is available, like shipping, which he said emits one billion tons of CO2 annually and spends “some $70 billion a year needlessly.” Similarly, 50 percent of all carbon emissions worldwide, he said, come from inefficient buildings, which led to his gathering 30 mayors of the largest cities in the world to plot how to be less polluting.
“We do need to keep broadening the debate,” he said. “As arguments continue to rage around the weather patterns and reality of climate change, we are missing the bigger picture that there is no scientific debate about every single one of our natural ecosystems being in decline. Part of this shift must be a new perspective on how we value our natural assets and how we change our consumption patterns. If we don’t move on this, Mother Nature will force us to.”
The week before, Branson had been in China to help launch a campaign against shark fin soup. There he met a man believed to be one of the richest in China, whose company can put up a 20-story, fully functioning, environmentally sound building in ten days. He loved the spirit behind the effort.
“At Virgin we have always backed the power of the entrepreneur and inventor to find solutions to tricky problems,” he said. “With this in mind, why should climate change and the battle against carbon be any different?”
To that end, in 2007 he announced the Virgin Earth Challenge, an idea he credits to his wife, which offered a $25 million prize to whoever—inventor, scientist or entrepreneur—could come up with the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The original deadline was 2010; to date they’ve received 2,500 entries but have not yet chosen a “grand prize winner.” Instead, he said, the panel—which includes James Lovelock, Tim Flannery, Al Gore and James Hansen—has decided to choose a handful of promising entries and give them grants to help develop some experimental technologies.
Ever the optimist, he was the first to admit, “We have a lot of work to do on many fronts and not much time to change the course we are on.
“We must look at the issues around protecting our natural resources as one of the biggest entrepreneurial opportunities of our lifetimes. We have the technology to realize this opportunity—we now need the right government policies to put the capital in place to build a new economy that puts people and the planet ahead of just business as usual and creates a more equitable way of life in harmony with the planet.”
In typical Branson form, of course, he refused to end on a dour note, choosing optimism instead by referencing Martin Luther King, Jr.: “He did not get his message across by saying ‘I have a nightmare!’ ”