On the eve of this year’s international climate change conference in Cancun, women are beginning to position themselves as major players in the emerging green economy. Until recently, women have represented a tiny minority at these conferences and have been almost entirely absent from major gatherings of green entrepreneurs. Women, now playing a more active role, understand that their absence from both the design and success of the industrial and technological revolutions prevented them from directly reaping the political and financial rewards from those seismic economic shifts. These women also recognize that, because they were sidelined, they failed to prevent the unsustainable business models that brought us climate change and other environmental disasters and debilitating economic and social inequities.
Today, women find themselves in a different position than they were during the advent of the industrial revolution when they didn’t have the right to vote and education was sparse. Women are also better represented in the fields of science and technology. We are now better educated, more global in our perspective, and more willing to stand up for sustainability. It is important that women don’t miss this opportunity to be leaders at the inception of the most important economic revolution since the industrial revolution.
Women can bring a unique perspective to the development of the green economy. As studies have demonstrated, women entrepreneurs and business leaders bring to the business world an expertise on managing risk with an eye on long term priorities such as sustainability. The conventional business model represents the epitome of risk because it encourages businesses to sacrifice everything from long term growth to climate stability to future access to natural resources for the sake of short-term profits. To avoid our current path’s economic risk forecast by the consensus of scientists and economists, we need to shift our business model from short term gains to perpetual sustainability. To make this shift we need to foster a culture in the private sector that understands risk and knows how to manage it.
Women leaders in the private and public sectors are committed to this mission and are already making real progress. Mindy Lubber, president of the Ceres sustainable investment coalition and the Investor Network on Climate Risk, is leading investors to demand that governments address climate change. Her army of investors representing $15 trillion in capital recognizes that climate change will jeopardize economic recovery and climate solutions will present opportunities in clean technology innovation. Member-investors such as Barbara Krumsiek’s Calvert agree: “Investors are concerned with the risks presented by climate change to regional and global economies and to individual assets. At the same time, investors are interested in the large potential economic opportunities that the transition to a low carbon economy present.”
It is not surprising that women want to lead the effort to stop climate change because, as the United Nations has noted, “the threats of climate change are not gender-neutral.” Women understand that their gender is more susceptible to the disruptions and disease associated with climate change. But they also recognize that women in most countries are also less likely to be in decision-making roles in regards to how a country’s economic resources are used or how government regulates climate and business. Even in Western countries, less than 15 percent of the leadership positions in civil society, business and government are held by women and, in other countries, this number is closer to zero.
It is vital that a critical mass of women lay the framework for the next economy. If the new economy aims to avoid the risky pitfalls of our current model, the framers of the new green economy need to manage risk. For example, we cannot gamble on risky false solutions such as nuclear, “clean coal,” and corn ethanol biofuels. Such ideas exacerbate our sustainability challenges or at the very best, trade one environmental problem for another. Lack of forethought about these risks will keep us on our current unsustainable path. Women’s leadership in this new economy can help fill this void.
Cancun will host dozens of meetings to begin creating a strategic process that will even the playing field and grow a new generation of women entrepreneurs. This movement is not just taking place at UN conferences. The World Economic Forum, consultation for Rio Plus 20, and dozens of other private sector meetings are also addressing this issue.
These leaders, representing the business, political, and creative worlds, can develop solutions and mobilize women all over the world to promote new innovative solutions. While the green economy is in its infancy, it needs a mother to nurture it and ensure core values and beliefs. We need to get it right this time and we need to provide the new economy with a stable, value-oriented upbringing.
Rogers is president of Earth Day Network.