It’s Hip To Be Green

REAL ESTATE IS BOOMING, the Dow Jones industrial average is flirting with new highs and — in case you were worrying about them — Forbes magazine reports that all 400 of the richest Americans are now billionaires. So it’s little wonder that this is a golden age for philanthropy. Charity is breaking out everywhere.

This week, George Lucas gave $175 million to USC, furthering that university’s push to enter the nation’s top academic ranks. Further afield, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie and Bono have conspired to make Africa a hip cause. FC Barcelona, Europe’s soccer powerhouse, has turned down a $22-million offer to sport an advertiser’s logo on its jersey, opting instead to plug UNICEF.

In New York, A-listers clamored for invitations this week to the second annual Clinton Global Initiative conference, a gathering where invitees pony up $15,000 not just to gab with the former president about the world’s pressing problems but to line up to make charitable commitments to tackle them.

The most eye-popping pledge to emerge this year from Clinton’s conference came from Sir Richard Branson, who vowed to invest an estimated $3 billion (his transportation businesses’ profits over the next decade) toward developing energy sources that don’t contribute to global warming.

Branson’s business ventures may not always succeed, but he is a renowned marketing genius, whether his Virgin Records is introducing the public to the Sex Pistols, or his Virgin Vines is courting wine lovers by mocking them, or Virgin Galactic is promising to take ordinary people (ordinary people with $200,000 to spend on a ticket, that is) into space. Beyond the dollars involved here, his Virgin touch could help infuse a cause most closely associated with the stodgy earnestness of Al Gore with some hipdom.

Branson could become the Bono of climate change. He certainly looked like a gracefully aging rock star Friday on “Good Morning America,” with his flowing locks and open-throated shirt, sitting next to a stolid, suited Gore. It was Gore whose depth and commitment over a two-hour breakfast convinced the Virgin man, a onetime skeptic about greenhouse gases, that this is a real and imminent threat. But it’s Branson who has both the bravura and the bucks to make major headlines, and possibly major progress, on the global warming front.

The Bush administration inadvertently made Branson look even more like a rock star by releasing, one day before his announcement, a wan “strategic plan” for curbing global warming. Four years in the making, the plan offers no policy recommendations and, as its own authors say, does not provide a comprehensive strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Instead, it calls for more scientific research and voluntary actions by the private sector.

So far, at least, we have Branson for that. Let the volunteering begin.