Nearly three decades ago, he pioneered 24-hour news. Now he’s trying to save the world—and make money doing it. In this week’s Seven Questions, entrepreneur and philanthropist Ted Turner talks about the United Nations, the death of newspapers, and why climate change offers “the greatest business opportunity that has ever come along.”
CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images News
The optimist: Ted Turner says that “failure is not an option” in the fight against climate change.
FOREIGN POLICY: You’ve been a big backer of the United Nations, and you’ve put your money where your mouth is by funding the United Nations Foundation. As an entrepreneur, give me your best elevator pitch saying why the United States, the most powerful country in the world, needs the U.N. at all.
Ted Turner: As big and as powerful as we are, we can’t do it alone. The United States is only about 5 percent of the world’s population and is responsible for 25 percent of its carbon emissions. But there’s 75 percent [for which] we’re not. [When it comes to] global warming and war and peace and global refugees and the oceans and human rights, we have to have the U.N. to do those things because we’re not just set up to do it.
FP: How do you think Ban Ki-moon is doing, compared with his predecessor as U.N. secretary-general, Kofi Annan?
TT: I think Kofi Annan did a great job, and I think Ban Ki-moon is doing an absolutely magnificent job. We are very, very fortunate to have Ban in there now and [to] have had Kofi Annan for the previous 10 years. We’ve been very fortunate to have very constructive, creative leadership, because right now, humanity is facing the greatest dangers we have ever faced.
FP: You’ve spoken about climate change as a huge market opportunity. So in what technologies should a budding entrepreneur be investing his or her money? Where are you placing your bets?
TT: It’s going to cost trillions of dollars to rework the energy sources all over the world. We’re going to have to move away from fossil fuels. Even if we didn’t have greenhouse gases, we’re going to have to move away from fossil fuels as we’re going to run out. They’re finite, whereas solar and wind are infinite. Once we tap into them, we have a continuous renewable source of energy. What we need to have is a clean source of energy. In the United States, the incidences of asthma are up 100 percent in the last 120 years. We’re poisoning ourselves with all these gases. Solar and wind energy are a win-win situation. We get energy independence, which we desperately need to have. We’re transferring our wealth right now in massive amounts to the most unstable parts of the world that happen to have oil.
I have an interest in a solar-panel installation and design company in New Jersey, and I would like to invest more. Right now, it’s not like clean renewable energy has just been discovered; it’s been discovered over the last few years, and it’s the next hot investment opportunity. The companies that have the best prospects are selling at very high multiples. Anybody who wants to invest in the field had better study it very carefully and invest as wisely as possible. This is the greatest business opportunity that has ever come along. It’s truly global. We have to phase out all the coal-burning plants all over the world. We have to come up with new fuels for transport, biofuels probably. This is big.
FP: How do you get the politics of climate change in the United States to the point where a member of Congress from Toledo is scared to vote against, say, a carbon tax or a global cap-and-trade system to replace the Kyoto Protocol? Because we’re not there yet, are we?
TT: It’s going to be less so now. It’s been hard with the [Bush] administration. There are a number of energy bills going through Congress, and I think that Congress is a lot more amenable to listening to suggestions and studying the issues and getting familiar with them. The administration is moving a little bit, but they’ve always been holding back on this issue, disappointingly.
If we end up doing nothing or not enough, we’re facing very, very difficult times. In fact, we’re in difficult times right now. Down here in Atlanta, we’re running out of water. We have the worst drought in history in this part of the country. It’s almost unbelievable.
FP: As a philanthropist, does it frustrate you that you can’t make policies? Without government, are you just nipping at the margins?
TT: I’m frustrated a lot, but we can’t give up and get discouraged. We have to keep pressing on. I was good friends with Captain [Jacques] Cousteau. I told him one time in the Amazon, doing a series down there on [Cousteau’s boat] the Calypso, I said, “Captain, I’m kind of discouraged.” He said, “Ted, we cannot afford to get discouraged, even if we knew that we were going to lose. Which we don’t. What can men of good conscience do but keep trying until the very end?” And whenever I tend to get discouraged, I think of those words and I press on. Failure is not an option here. We’re talking about the survival of the human race, as well as all the other critters we share the planet with—the elephants and the pandas and the polar bears.
FP: What do you think of Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize? Does it help the fight against climate change, or does it turn it into more of a partisan issue in the United States?
TT: It’s going to help. Al Gore didn’t get it because he’s a Democrat. He got it because he is a good guy who’s smart as a whip. He sees ahead. And he’s made a great contribution. Every little bit helps. CNN is running a major series next week entitled Planet in Peril. It would have been a title that I would have been proud to have when I was there. It’s strong language, when you say “in peril.” Iran does not put us in peril like global warming does.
FP: Newspapers are struggling to find revenue streams, and major papers such as the Boston Globe have laid off a lot of foreign correspondents. Does that worry you? What do you think newspapers need to do to stay afloat today?
TT: I’m sorry about newspapers, but in all fairness, I predicted this 25 years ago when I started CNN. Newspapers are technologically obsolete. In the days of instant electronic communications, it’s crazy to have to print these newspapers at a central plant and deliver them by truck. They’re the biggest problem with our solid-waste disposal. And the news you get is a day old. You can get it off the Internet instantaneously for a fraction of the cost. Maybe there will still be the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and some people will subscribe, but I’m afraid newspapers are riding off into the sunset. I’m 68 and a half years old; I grew up with newspapers; I love newspapers; I love the news business. I started CNN; I’m a journalist and proud of it. I hate to see it happen. But if you’re not technologically up to date, you’re dead. They’re coming up with new stuff all the time.
Ted Turner is founder of CNN and chairman of Turner Enterprises.
Source: Foreign Policy