MANILA -- After a 10-minute address on the importance of global efforts to counter climate change, President Barack Obama opted to personally moderate a talk at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO Summit.
Instead of the one-on-one interview with a well-known media personality that usually follows, the U.S. president was joined by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group Holdings and China's second richest man, and Philippine eco-entrepreneur Aisa Mijeno of Sustainable Alternative Lighting (SALt), a startup that makes lamps powered by salt water.
"We thought it was a good idea," said Migel Estoque, the summit's media director, noting that it is the first time a national leader has moderated a session at an APEC CEO Summit." Estoque said the White House had requested the altered talk format without giving reasons.
The reasons for Obama's choice of Ma were also not entirely clear. The president does have a relationship with Bill Gates, the founder of software company Microsoft who has turned to philanthropy. After Gates recently invited Ma to invest in clean technology, Ma described the opportunity to work with him as a "fantastic idea".
During their talk, Obama quizzed Ma on ways governments and big companies can help entrepreneurs innovate.
"Government is simple," said Ma. "Just reduce the tax -- or no tax -- for these guys." The response drew cheers from an audience dominated by business leaders.
For her part, Mijeno compared environmental damage to a cancer progressing. "We have the passion," she said of entrepreneurs battling climate change. "We also need a lot of support in terms of funding -- that is our main challenge right now."
Obama asked about measures being taken in Asia, and Ma admitted that only 0.3% of his company's around $12.3 billion in annual revenue goes towards improving the environment at present.
Ma complained about a sore throat he suffered in smog-choked Beijing recently, and said he and some 45 other Chinese businessmen are personally contributing to an organization called Paradise International Foundation for climate change initiatives.
Ma spoke of worthwhile efforts in Asia-Pacific, "especially in China", but said "really workable" ways need to be found. "It is too late to worry," he said. "We have to make action, join together -- this is what we believe."
The session had lighter moments for Obama, who generated laughter from the audience as he drummed up possible funding for Mijeno and took time out from discussing global terrorism, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and territorial tensions in the South China Sea.
It remains to be seen, however, if the APEC gathering will generate any fresh ideas on for when Obama and 20 other world leaders attend the annual United Nations Climate Conference in Paris at the end of the month.