By Maria Saporta

President Barack Obama should make the environment and climate change a top priority during his second term in office.

That was the advice of former President Jimmy Carter during a panel discussion Friday night at the annual Captain Planet Foundation’s Benefit Gala at the Georgia Aquarium. The foundation was started 21 years ago by Ted Turner, when he was leading Turner Broadcasting System, and Barbara Pyle, who was in charge of environmental programming for the cable television company.

The gala featured a one-of-a-kind panel discussion between the former president; Turner, who also is a philanthropist and environmentalist; Sir Richard Branson, founder and chairman of the Virgin Group — a multifaceted business entity with investments in airlines, ground travel, telecommunications, health space travel and renewable energy; and Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama administration.

Jimmy Carter

“We need leadership in the White House saying every day that we need to do something about global warming,” Carter said during the sold-out event. “That hasn’t happened yet. But I hope it will happen in his second term. He can be a leader of the world and not lag behind.”

Turner, in a brief conversation after the dinner, agreed.

“I hope that he does it,” Turner said of Obama making the environment a top priority in his second term. “We will help him all we can.”

Jackson, however, defended the work that the Obama administration had been able to accomplish during his first term despite the Great Recession. In particular, she mentioned the federal standards to dramatically improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles and the efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

Still Branson said it was important for the United States and other countries to take the advice of scientists when it comes to global warming and to help shift the production of energy from fossil fuels such as coal and oil to renewables such as solar and wind. To prospective entrepreneurs, Branson said “there are enormous fortunes to be made in this area.”

Ted Turner

Then the conversation took a rather surprising turn by discussing the merits to legalize or decriminalize drugs.

Branson said that in the United States, there are more black people in prison on drug charges than there were slaves before the Civil War.

“It is really frightening,” Branson said. “If they have a drug problem, they should be helped. I would just appeal to America to get those people out of prisons. Set up drug clinics. Get people back into society. Don’t destroy so many black families.”

Carter quickly followed up with his own recollection.

Richard Branson

“When I was president in 1979, I made a definitive speech about drugs and called for the decriminalization of marijuana, and that was in 1979,” Carter said. “Putting people in prison is a step backwards.”

But Carter then seemed to remember where he was and added that he didn’t think legalizing drugs would happen in Georgia any time soon.

During the panel conversation, Turner didn’t offer an opinion on the drug issue. As a father of five children, all he said was: “It’s hard enough just to keep up with your own children. The difference in generations is significant.”

But in response to a question after the event, Turner agreed with Branson and Carter. “I think we do need to decriminalize drugs,” he said.

Lisa Jackson

Environmental issues, however, dominated the conversation.

Branson repeatedly raised concerns about global warming, saying that in recent years, the earth has recorded the hottest temperatures since we’ve been keeping track.

“The world is going to continue heating up exponentially until the planet is destroyed,” said Branson, unless there is a concerted effort to reverse the trend. “It’s very, very serious for mankind, very, very serious for the earth. It’s not necessary. Let’s address the problem.”

Jackson, who is from the 9th Ward in New Orleans, also said there was an economic disparity when it comes to environmental issues.

“Bringing clean air and clean water to the poor is the unfinished business of the environmental community,” she said. “We have work to do.”

But Jackson also ended on a note of optimism.

“We have made tremendous progress. Rivers are no long burning. The skies are no longer polluted at noon,” she said, adding that her teenage boys and their peers are part of the “Captain Planet Generation” — people who have a heightened sense of the impact humans are having on the earth. “We need to continue as a country to lead in environmental literacy and environmental education. I’m very optimistic that’s where we’re going.”

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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