During the World Climate Summit, a conference for businesses leaders during COP16 in Cancún, Sir Richard Branson sat down with me for a four-minute interview.
Branson is one of the world's ultimate success stories. Born with unbounded charisma, he founded his first company at the age of 16 in 1966, selling records out of the back of his car. He grew the business into Virgin Records, a leader in the industry, and then launched Virgin Airlines in 1984 and Virgin Mobil in 1999. He is also famous for his world record attempts: an attempted round-the-world balloon ride, a fastest sail across the Atlantic, and a fastest air-balloon journey across that same ocean. In his autobiography, he wrote "My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them... from the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it." Today he is worth four billion dollars.
About seven years ago, Al Gore showed up uninvited at Sir Richard's doorstep. Gore knocked and asked Branson if he could show him a climate presentation. Two hours later, Branson, the world's 212th richest man and chairman of the Virgin Group, was convinced that he should use his wealth and talents to fight climate change.
Branson is clearly committed to solving the challenges of global warming. He has made significant pledges to reduce emissions from his airlines and he has invested all of the profits from Virgin Airlines into fighting climate change, including $100 million into an algae biofuel company. He has offered the "Virgin Earth Challenge Prize," a $25 million prize for anyone who discovers how to take carbon out of the atmosphere. He has founded the Carbon War Room, an organization that is working with businesses to find innovative ways to reduce emissions, and he also helped found the Gigaton Awards. During the interview, Branson struggled to remember everything that he was doing to fight climate change.
Perhaps the swagger and ambition of Branson should be adopted by more environmentalists. Too often solving climate change is framed as sacrifice, as "cutting pollution," implying a lower quality of life. Branson's message is the opposite -- he is one of the world's most successful individuals, and his ventures speak to ambition and economic growth. His brand is that of risk-taking followed by limitless success. We could use more of that inspiration in our fight against climate change.