Richard Branson, founder and chair of the British conglomerate Virgin Group, has racked up more than his share of high-profile high jinks over the years. Among them, signing the notorious Sex Pistols to his young record label, dangling nearly nude over Times Square, and botching numerous transoceanic hot-air balloon expeditions, necessitating rescue by helicopter. But the most audacious move of all may have been his declaration last week that he’ll dedicate $3 billion to helping solve the climate crisis.

The largest-ever private sum directed to the cause, Branson’s pledge accounted for more than a third of the total $7.3 billion in commitments reaped at the Clinton Global Initiative gathering in New York. That’s where Bill Clinton convened movers, shakers, and big spenders to tackle what he calls the four most pressing global challenges of our time: poverty, health care, religious and ethnic conflict, and global warming.

Climate change drew in more dollars and cents than the other issues, and that’s surely attributable at least in part to the fact that climate solutions — be they energy-saving technologies or fossil-fuel alternatives — have enormous profit-making potential. Companies like General Electric, which is pushing its climate-friendly innovations, know this full well. GE’s “Green is green” motto says it all: Good environmental strategies fatten the bottom line.

Branson, for his part, has made no bones about the fact that his global-warming commitment is less a charitable endeavor than a brand-building, revenue-producing tactic. He plans to plow 100 percent of the proceeds from Virgin’s airline and locomotive divisions — an estimated $3 billion over 10 years — into investments in clean technologies, such as wind turbines and cleaner-burning aviation fuel, with a heavy emphasis on developing “cellulosic” ethanol. Derived from agricultural waste and fast-growing crops like switchgrass, this biofuel produces virtually no greenhouse-gas emissions and is much-celebrated in environmental circles, although it has yet to be proved in the marketplace.

“I believe [cellulosic ethanol] is the future of fuel,” Branson stated at the CGI, predicting, “Over the next 20 or 30 years, I think it actually will replace the conventional fuel that you get out of the ground.”

Earlier this month, Branson established Virgin Fuels, which will channel $400 million into biofuels investments over the next three years. He has already sunk nearly a fifth of that into the California-based company Cilion, which is developing state-of-the-art ethanol plants and is bankrolled by dot-com-billionaire-turned-biofuels-evangelist Vinod Khosla.

Branson seems to be trying to do for biofuels what his company helped do for cell phones — make a fringe technology into a mainstream phenomenon. Said Ashok Gupta, air and energy program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, “A single investment like this can’t solve global warming by itself, but it can help create trends that in turn move markets that produce solutions. From environmental, national security, and investment perspectives, Branson deserves big applause.”

Media magnate Ted Turner agrees. He told The New York Times that Branson’s commitment was a “brilliant move,” adding, “He’ll probably make more money off of this than he would off the airlines themselves.”

Indeed, Branson has plenty of good business reasons to pursue this strategy — not the least of which is a federal mandate in the U.K. requiring all fueling stations to get 5 percent of their fuel from renewable sources by 2010. There are also heaps of incentives in the pipeline for biofuel stations and production in the U.S. and elsewhere. But the biggest driver, says Branson, is the soaring cost of oil: “I’ve seen the price of my [aviation] fuel going up by nearly a billion over the last three years. It’s painful for us as a business, it’s painful for our travelers, but thank God it’s happened … [H]igh oil prices are what’s been needed to actually wake up the world to deal with this [climate] problem.”

It’s a surprising perspective from a man who admits to having been dubious of global warming: “Four or five years ago, I read a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist and I believed what I read,” he confessed when announcing his commitment, referring to Bjorn Lomborg’s polemic that called into question the seriousness of global warming, among numerous other environmental problems. Branson began to reconsider his position when Turner and Al Gore independently appealed to him to face facts.

Having since read “many, many books on global warming, and met many, many scientists,” Branson said he has come to realize that “the world is facing a catastrophe.” As he told the CGI audience, with uncharacteristic earnestness, “Our generation has inherited an incredibly beautiful world from our parents and they from their parents. It is in our hands whether our children and their children inherit the same world. We must not be the generation responsible for irreversibly damaging the environment.”

If the Shoe Profits, Wear It

The twin forces of do-goodism and profit motive have similarly given rise to Google.org, the internet empire’s recently announced philanthropic arm, which aims to alleviate global warming, poverty, and disease — and make money in so doing.

According to philanthropy consultant Susan Raymond of Changing Our World, Inc., Google.org is one of the first major philanthropic organizations to shun nonprofit status — a move that will not only require it to pay taxes on any profits, but also enable it to fund start-up companies to devise planet-saving technologies, partner with venture capitalists to help finance the innovations, and lobby Congress for policies that will help build emerging markets.

Google.org’s spokesperson Jon Murchinson declined to discuss details of the organization’s strategy. “We’re still in the process of staffing up,” he told Muckraker. “[CEO] Larry [Brilliant] just came on in May. We don’t have any specifics at this point.” But The New York Times recently reported that one of the company’s flagship projects is rumored to be a flex-fuel, plug-in hybrid that could be powered by electricity, gasoline, or biofuels. It’s just the sort of next-gen automotive technology that giants like Toyota and General Motors are also pursuing.

Raymond recently published an essay in the publication On Philanthropy arguing that for-profit enterprises represent a new paradigm in philanthropy. “The emergence of Google.org … may be bringing us to The End of Definitions in the philanthropic and nonprofit worlds,” she writes. “How is Google.org a philanthropy? How is General Motors not a philanthropy? Making matters worse, GM is NOT making money and Google.org will (or it assumes it will). So, is GM a ‘nonprofit’ and Google.org not?”

She’s just one in a growing cadre of experts who think for-profit ventures could radically change the face of philanthropy. Earlier this month, Anup Malani and Eric Posner of the University of Chicago Law School published “The Case for For-Profit Charities,” a paper arguing that for-profit charities should be rewarded with the same tax breaks as nonprofits. “For-profit philanthropy could be a defining, and I think a very beneficial, trend going forward,” Malani told Muckraker. Paul Ray, author of the influential book The Cultural Creatives, also recently made a similar point in Grist, arguing that “the line between for-profit and not-for-profit [will] be blurred and eventually erased.”

For now, the main difference between for-profit companies and Google.org’s for-profit philanthropy is the fact that the former must divide their profits among shareholders, while the latter plans to steer its revenue into further social investments. “Any profits that come from Google.org go back to Google.org,” said Murchinson. The more money the organization makes from its clean-car technology, for instance, the more it will have for further research and investment, and the faster it will drive sustainable innovation.

For-profit philanthropy has its limits, of course. How would it solve problems like illiteracy, homelessness, or religious conflict, which have little or no profit potential? Raymond and Malini think traditional nonprofits will persist and continue to address those challenges. “I don’t foresee the for-profit model subsuming the nonprofit model — each is effective in its own way and in different circumstances,” said Raymond. “What we’re looking at is another very promising tool in the philanthropic toolbox.”

Greened for the Very First Time

While Branson has not proposed making Virgin Fuels or any other endeavor a philanthropic organization, his mission and Google.org’s are both based on a common premise: The best way to accelerate the development of planet-saving technologies is to let the marketplace compete to optimize them.

“I have about 10 different reasons for doing this,” Branson told the British newspaper The Independent in an exclusive interview last weekend. “One is to tackle climate change. Another is to develop a clean fuel industry. But I would also love to have Virgin recognized as the most respected brand in the world. If it can be a leader in tackling global warming, and that enhances the brand, that’s fine. It will enable us to tackle the problem all the sooner.” (No doubt Google.com will also enjoy the benefits of brand enhancement if Google.org proves successful.)

Clinton took Branson’s point a step further, arguing not only that the movement to fight climate change will benefit from profit-driven solutions, but that it can’t succeed without them. “The thing that’s important about Richard’s commitment is that this is about investment,” Clinton said moments after Branson announced his commitment at CGI. “We will never get the world to deal with a problem that is over the horizon, even if it’s just a few years over the horizon, unless we can prove we can do it with productive investments … And we can never prove that unless we have a certain aggregate amount of capital to apply to the task.”

Only time will tell how successful corporate ventures and for-profit philanthropies are in addressing climate change, but considering the monstrous scope of the problem, all new hands on deck are welcome.