This article is part of a continuing series on Visionaries. The New York Times selected people from all over the world who are pushing the boundaries of their fields, from science and technology to culture and sports.
When policymakers, financiers and scientists describe the world decades from now, in the throes of climatic changes that we now only model, they emphasize what might be lost. They discuss the threats to gross domestic product, the havoc wrought by natural disasters or the runaway greenhouse gas emissions released by emerging national economies.
To Narasimha Rao, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies specializing in energy systems analysis, that is a false choice, one that sacrifices justice on the altar of economic growth.
So far, the global economy has not been able to fully decouple growth in G.D.P. from growth in greenhouse gas emissions. That relationship portends doom for a planet trying to keep emissions in check in order to avoid global catastrophe and also for emerging economies — mainly in the global south — working to lift millions out of poverty, and to achieve the levels of growth and success that the United States and much of the West have experienced.
But through his research, Mr. Rao, who also has appointments at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment in India, has found that we don’t need to choose. Instead, he has developed the Decent Living Energy Project, an assessment of both the energy needs in select emerging economies and the climate impacts of providing everyone in those same economies with a basic living standard. This standard would largely be defined by access to adequate nutrition, safe homes with sanitation and basic amenities such as refrigeration, mobility, education and basic health care.
“The dominant discourse in climate change and energy transitions equates well-being to G.D.P., and we need to move beyond that.”
His research shows that reducing inequality — within countries and between them — would improve our ability to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change, and provide for a more stable climate future. Fundamentally, for Mr. Rao, climate change, at its most essential, is a justice issue.
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
How have your views about climate change, mitigation strategies and different levels of global responsibility changed over time?
I started out with a more technical background. I was an engineer, and I was drawn to some of the, in my mind, unresolved justice issues about sharing the burden of climate change. Going back to when I didn’t have a good appreciation for what the energy transition entails, it came to me that emerging economies have a particularly difficult dilemma that often doesn’t resolve very well in academic discourse.
They have what appear to be conflicting demands — growing, increasing energy use, raising living standards that could, at the same time, lead to calamitous contributions to climate change if we keep going along the same lines. How do you deal with mitigating climate and ensuring international justice as well as justice within these countries?
There is a big disconnect between global scenarios of mitigation and international discourse. There are idealized assumptions about what needs to happen while little on the ground reflects those directions of change.
“We are not going to pursue these completely transformative changes without thinking about sharing efforts.”
What are the major cultural shifts that need to happen to enable those changes?
If we are to really get to the level of mitigation that the Paris agreement calls for, it can only happen with increased attention to equity. We are not going to pursue these completely transformative changes without thinking about sharing efforts, and I see that requiring changes in the international sphere.
We need to look more rigorously at the basic requirements of human well-being and human progress. We know what they are in economics and social policy, but we don’t know how to align those requirements with climate change and energy use. The dominant discourse in climate change and energy transitions equates well-being to G.D.P., and we need to move beyond that.
What are the obstacles in getting people to understand those changes?
The models presume that welfare is driven by G.D.P. growth, for example, and that’s an important principle that’s embedded within them. They rarely model distributions or heterogeneity of populations, so you’re looking at aggregate outcomes and ignoring inequalities in society, and that ignores a lot of the problem.
We think about India and the U.S. as big emitters without thinking that India has to invest in advanced low-carbon technologies with a fraction of the income of the U.S. and to serve several hundred million in poverty.
What inspired you to go into your field?
Besides addressing what I thought was an unanswered justice question, Steve Schneider was a real inspiration to me. He was at Stanford, and was a climate scientist who was a really good communicator, who understand not only the science but also the ethics and morality of the science.
There was also a team of energy researchers from four continents who started to think about energy needs and technology leapfrogging, after the oil crises triggered concerns of energy scarcity and limits to growth. That work influenced me a lot.
And I was inspired a lot by Amartya Sen’s philosophy, in terms of thinking about well-being, but in general I am very much motivated by the need for interdisciplinary thinking about this problem which involves science, ethics, sociology and economics all together, and I think there are very few people who can cross those boundaries.
“From the age of 14, I was struck by poverty, and I wanted to do something to get rid of it.”
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I grew up in Mumbai in India, for my first 16 years, and I grew up in a middle-class family, but I was exposed to poverty around me. Being an Indian, if you do well at school, you focus on science and engineering. But I was always drawn to the social sciences because that’s where I thought a lot of our problems and solutions lay.
From the age of 14, I was struck by poverty, and I wanted to do something to get rid of it. What I wanted to be was — I don’t know how to define it, but somebody who would work to eradicate poverty. I thought it was through education at the time, but that was just a 14-year-old’s thinking.
Where do you find sources of creativity?
Music on a more personal level encourages the mental peace that brings creative ideas, but for me it’s operating in the space between disciplines. I borrow a phrase from Mr. Schneider that operating at the margins of disciplines and looking at the bridges between them — that’s my source of creativity.
How does technology interact with your profession?
My view is that technology is essential, but not the primary barrier to the energy transition. We need the right incentives to guide its development with a sense of purpose, and that purpose needs to be the public good. A lot of technological developments are driven by developers without regard to their long-term consequences for society.
“We haven’t really explored enough the benefits to our well-being of a low-carbon lifestyle.”
Discussions of climate change have often focused on sacrifice and loss as opposed to the benefits of a lower-carbon lifestyle. Is it possible to shift that way of thinking?
In some ways, the costs of reducing climate change are overstated. We haven’t really explored enough the benefits to our well-being of a low-carbon lifestyle, and this is one of the biases I see in the research: that risky technologies are the only ways to address climate change.
If you think about more public transit, more sustainable diets, more high-tech communities with perhaps more modest homes, these are things that can benefit people in the future, and likewise, I think in developing countries it will also require a shift away from present trends.
What are some of the more positive developments that you’ve seen in the climate movement recently?
It’s really the groundswell of public movement all over the world, most recently in the last few weeks. To me that’s the kind of pressure we need on politicians. We’ve been talking about this until now in a normative and academic sense, but climate action is largely a political problem.