Bill Clinton’s fourth annual star-studded thinkfest on philanthropy, technology, and cause advocacy—the Clinton Global Initiative—kicked off today in Manhattan with a bang of urgency, rife with references to global climate change, the U.S. financial meltdown, and the need for the next president, whoever he will be, to restore some of America’s standing in the world.

Here are some highlights from yesterday’s sessions:

*Bono blasted the failure of the developing world to make progress meeting United Nations Millennium Goals. He also blasted the Wall Street bail-out, saying: “It’s extraordinary to me that you can find $700 billion to save Wall Street and the entire G-8 can’t find $25 billion to save the 25,000 children who die from preventable diseases and hunger.” Bono, flanked on an opening session stage by Al Gore, Lance Armstrong, Bill Clinton, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said: “Bankruptcy is bad enough but this is moral bankruptcy.” The lead singer for U2 and cofounder of Product (RED) also said the next U.S. president should lead a global effort to tackle climate change, poverty, and other global social ills. This, he said, would “help America to redescribe itself to the rest of the world.”

*Al Gore urged young people to engage in “civil disobedience” to stop the creation of new coal plants. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmental crusader said that since last year’s Clinton summit, “the world has lost ground to the climate crisis. This is a rout. We are losing badly.” Gore called on young people to step up and take action. “If you’re a young person looking at what is being done right now, and not done, I believe we have reached the stage where it is time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal plants that do not have carbon capture and sequestration.” Gore said there are about 28 coal plants under construction in the United States, with another 20 projects near the start of construction. Gore also called on people to stop “buying the lie, the notion” that burning coal is still an acceptable energy alternative. “There is no such thing as clean coal,” he said. “Clean coal is like healthy cigarettes. It doesn’t exist.”

*Bill Clinton told a small group of bloggers that he thinks there is, at least, “a 50 percent chance” that people will give more to those in need during the evolving U.S. financial crisis. He said the meltdown “will make the work of putting philanthropists and organizations together more significant over the next couple of years.”

*Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, a panelist on an anti-poverty panel, called the current U.S. financial crisis “a really extraordinary situation—by far the most extraordinary situation the capital markets have faced since the 1930s.” Rubin, currently the director and chairman of the executive committee of Citigroup, said the first priority for the country is to “deal with the crisis of confidence that we’re facing.” He recommended quick passage of “some version” of the bailout plan now before Congress, saying that “there are no guarantees in life, but what is being proposed could help significantly, and if it’s not passed, then it will exacerbate” the crisis.

*Former President George Bush (41st) made a surprise appearance to talk about the need for Americans to join him and Clinton to raise money for families displaced by natural disasters in the American South. “People are without homes and without jobs as a result of forces beyond their control,” Bush said. “Just as we Americans gave to the victims of the tsunami four years ago, we must give to those in the Gulf suffering from sudden displacement.”

*Bill Gates, in an on-stage, one-on-one with Bill Clinton, alluded to what he said could be a small drop-off in philanthropic donations by “rich people” during the evolving financial crisis. When asked what advice he’d give to wealthy philanthropists now taking a beating on the value of their investments, Gates said: “Keep giving.” Because the very wealthy tend to give the least as a percentage of their holdings, he said, “even a modest increase in giving” by them to the neediest during these times of “greatest need” will have an impact.

The conference continues through Friday.

imageMarcia Stepanek is Founding Editor-in-Chief and President, News and Information, for Contribute Media, a New York-based magazine, Web site, and conference series about the new people and ideas of giving. She is the publisher of Cause Global, an acclaimed new blog about the use of digital media for social change. She also serves as moderator and producer of New Conversations for Change, Contribute’s forum series highlighting social entrepreneurs and new trends in philanthropy.