$25 Million Offered In Climate Challenge

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 10, 2007

LONDON, Feb. 9 -- British billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, with former vice president Al Gore at his side, offered a $25 million prize Friday to anyone who can come up with a way to blunt global climate change by removing at least a billion tons of carbon dioxide a year from the Earth's atmosphere.

Branson, saying that the "survival of our species" is imperiled by current environmental trends, said the prize was similar to cash inducements that led to some of history's most notable achievements in navigation, exploration and industry. A competition launched in the 17th century, he said, resulted in the creation of a method to accurately estimate longitude.

"I believe in our resourcefulness and in our capacity to invent solutions to the problems we have ourselves created," said Branson, who has pledged to invest $3 billion in profits from his transportation companies, including Virgin Atlantic Airlines and Virgin Trains, to fighting global warming.

"We are now facing a planetary emergency," said Gore, whose documentary film, "An Inconvenient Truth," has helped him become one of the world's leading voices on climate change issues.

The former vice president will serve as a judge in the contest, known as the Virgin Earth Challenge. He said he hoped the contest would spur scientific innovation without distracting from more practical steps people can take to battle global warming, from using energy-efficient light bulbs to pressuring politicians to confront "the crisis of our time."

"It's a challenge to the moral imagination of humankind," Gore said at a packed news conference, which several noted climate scientists and authors attended. Others provided videotaped endorsements or appeared by live video link.

Gore and Branson said that although scientists are working on technologies to capture carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at power plants and other industrial sources, no one has developed a strategy to remove gases already released into the atmosphere. Those gases are contributing to a dramatic increase in global temperatures that could have catastrophic results in the coming decades, they said.

The winner of the contest must devise a plan to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere without creating adverse effects. The first $5 million would be paid upfront, and the remainder of the money would be paid only after the program had worked successfully for 10 years.

"We're nowhere" on technologies to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, Gore said. But he said he hoped innovators might be spurred not simply by the cash prize but also by a passion for working on what he called "a moral issue."

Other judges in the competition are James E. Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies; British environmentalists and authors James Lovelock and Crispin Tickell; and Australian conservationist and author Tim Flannery.

Gore, Branson and the other panelists referred repeatedly to a study released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of hundreds of scientists from 113 countries, that concluded that human activity is warming the planet at a potentially disastrous and irreversible rate.

Gore dismissed critics who say the potential effects of climate change have been exaggerated. He said the overwhelming scientific evidence is that "the planet has a fever." He likened the situation to parents told by a doctor that their child needs medical care; those parents shouldn't listen to "some science fiction expert who tells you it isn't real -- you listen to the doctor."

Gore said he believed public interest in climate change was growing in the United States. But asked whether he thought Americans were ready for a presidential campaign in which global warming was the central issue, he said, "We're not there, yet."

Branson and Gore said they hoped to ask the governments of the United States, Britain and other countries to add to the prize money, or even match the $25 million pledged by Branson. "I don't have much influence with this administration," Gore joked.

Gore, who barely lost the 2000 presidential election to President Bush, has experienced a resurgence in popularity among many Democrats and is still viewed as a potential dark horse candidate in 2008. On Friday, he said he would not categorically rule out another run for public office, but he said he "can't foresee" any circumstances that would lead him to enter the race.

"I'm involved in a different kind of campaign," Gore said.

Details on the $25 million competition can be found athttp://www.virginearth.com.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company