As a global community, we find ourselves at a critical juncture. One path -- the "business as usual" route -- sees us approach a drastically warmer world, where our continuing reliance on fossil fuels will make this planet a cruelly inhospitable place for our children and grandchildren.
The other path is the route towards opportunity and truly sustainable development. The route that gives future generations the same chances to grow and prosper as so many of us in the developed world have enjoyed. If properly approached, this path should address the core inequalities that have plagued our world to date. But traveling this path requires a transformation in leadership as we move to a new greener, low carbon development model.
The transformative leadership necessary for a fair and climate-just future for all requires bold and brave steps by heads of state and government around the world. To be brave, these leaders must be supported by an engaged and well-informed electorate, business community, local governments and civil society organizations.
There is an emerging trend in public support for such transformative action. A new "Eurobarometer" poll, published earlier this week by the European Commission, showed that nine in 10 Europeans (90 percent) think that climate change is a very serious or a serious problem, while 92 percent think that it is important for their government to provide support for improving energy efficiency by 2030.
On the eve of International Women's Day it is important to focus on the leadership women can provide in reshaping our societies for a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future. I am convinced by my work with women leaders at all levels, from community leaders, mayors of towns and cities, leaders of civil society and multilateral organizations, ministers and heads of state, that women "get" climate change. They connect with the injustice of the negative impacts on the most vulnerable and the intergenerational inequities we will contribute to if we fail to act now and pass the problem on for future generations to deal with.
Women leaders in business will play a particularly important role in making the transition away from business as usual. According to the Eurobarometer poll, 41 percent of respondents believe that responsibility for tackling climate change lies with business and industry. For women to lead in taking such responsibility they have to hold positions of power and influence in the business world, a world where women continue to be in the minority. Women currently hold just 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions and 4.6 percent of Fortune 1000 CEO positions.
Empowering women, improving their representation and participation in all walks of life, but particularly in the male-dominated world of business, is a critical step in tackling the climate crisis. We need to close the gender gap and use all of the world's human resources to solve one of the most challenging global issues of all time. A study released earlier this year, "Women, Business and the Law 2014," shows that there are still legal differences that restrict women's economic opportunities in 90 percent of 143 countries studied. These include laws related to owning and using property, accessing institutions and having the right to work. 79 economies around the world restrict the type of job women can do and shockingly, policies encouraging women to join and remain in the workforce are associated with less income equality. Clearly the picture emerging is worrying, frustrating and complex.
While in many parts of the world we debate the pros and cons of positive discrimination to improve the representation and participation of women in decision making, a myriad of other laws and policies are creating a complex web of barriers, disincentives and monetary inequalities. We can do better.
Meanwhile, for the women who are in leading roles in business, I have a proposition to make. I want you to be champions of climate justice.
Valuable progress has been made over recent years in acknowledging that all businesses have their own responsibility to respect human rights. The work of Professor John Ruggie, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on business and human rights, has established consensus between governments that business must play a role in protecting and upholding human rights. The UN Guiding Principles on Human Rights and Business which many companies are actively implementing offer the potential to integrate a climate justice dimension by addressing the human rights implications of climate change through the "Protect Respect and Remedy" Framework.
The opportunities emanating from a low-carbon economy have huge potential -- from the surge in employment it triggers in renewable industries, to the increased consumer confidence in a brand and products that are produced in a truly ethical way. We just need the leadership to shape the policies and make the changes necessary to get the transformation under way.
A business and political world predominantly led by men has brought us to today's global juncture. So let's close the gender gap. As we celebrate International Women's Day 2014, I hope that we can recognize the key role women in business can play in solving the climate crisis and make sure we take the obstacles out of their way.
Mary Robinson is a former President of Ireland (1990-97) and an honorary leader in the B-Team. She is also President of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice.