IMAGE: BRANSON
Kathy Willens  /  AP
Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson floats his "war room" idea Monday at the United Nations. With him on the podium are actress Daryl Hannah and U.N. General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim.
updated 2/12/2008 12:27:34 PM ET 2008-02-12T17:27:34

How's this for an idea: an "environmental war room" to lead the world's efforts to find a fix for global warming.

Virgin CEO and British billionaire Richard Branson offered that idea up while addressing the start of a U.N. debate on climate change, saying it would be run by a world figure in global warming and could serve as "a tool for the U.N." to ferret out good ideas and calculate each nation's costs.

"The 'war room' will be independent of politics," Branson said. "But in the end it will need the United Nations, governments and other organizations to help make sure implementation happens."

Branson outlined the idea at a press conference Monday with U.N. General Assembly President Srgjan Kerim and actress Daryl Hannah, and then again at a luncheon for the delegates attending the two-day debate.

The need for developing nations and the world's cities to take over the lead on the fight against global warming was a common refrain among diplomats, mayors and business leaders — though they recognized it will take the inclusion of the United States and China, the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, to fix the problem.

"This is just as important as stopping nuclear proliferation. This is just as important as stopping terrorism," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

The General Assembly is trying to shape overall U.N. policy on climate change, including how nations can adapt to a warmer world, and to generate support for the U.N.-led negotiations that are intended to craft a new climate treaty by 2009.

"In such a case of emergency, leadership is needed," said Kerim, a Macedonian diplomat and economics professor. "This planet does not know where the borders are."

Kerim said the U.N. cannot address climate change alone without broad cooperative efforts for more research, new technologies and renewable energies.

Cities are ready to lead the change with national governments and international organizations, said Letizia Moratti, the mayor of Milan, Italy.

"It's time for all national leaders to stand up, and be honest and responsible about the cost of climate change for future generations and for ourselves," Moratti said.

Nearly 100 countries have signed up to speak at the debate, and 20 were sending ministers. "Climate is interwoven into every aspect of development," said Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, a private group that supports the world body's work.

Bloomberg proposed a new U.S. tax on carbon emissions, rather than the market-based approach to letting governments and companies swap emission rights that most in Congress favor. He called on the United States to set "real and binding" targets to reduce the greenhouse gases blamed for warming the planet, in contrast to the current U.S. strategy that largely relies on voluntary approaches and spending for research and technology.

"We are not waiting for others to act first," Bloomberg said. "I believe that the American people are prepared for our responsibility to lead by example."

A U.S.-sponsored meeting in Hawaii of delegates from the 16 nations that emit the most pollutants ended earlier this month without concrete targets for slashing greenhouse gas emissions, but participants — including the European Union and the United Nations — praised what they saw as a new willingness by the United States to discuss possible solutions.

Delegates from nearly 190 nations had agreed in December at a U.N.-brokered conference in the Indonesian resort island of Bali to adopt a blueprint to control global warming gases before the end of next year.

"Developed countries need to take a clear lead, but success is possible only if all countries act," Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said. "The more ambitious the commitments by developed countries, the more actions we can expect from developing countries."

The next treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it expires in 2012 could shape climate change for decades to come. The Kyoto pact requires 37 industrial nations to reduce greenhouse gases by a relatively modest 5 percent on average.

Ban, who proposes the world redirect spending of up to $20 trillion over two decades for cleaner energy sources, said the challenge is huge: "We have less than two years to craft an agreement on action that measures up to what the science tells us."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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