rowing up in Mumbai, India, Narasimha Rao understood he was one of the lucky ones. In a crowded city where more than half the population live in slums, Rao enjoyed a stable home and attended a small, private school where he was exposed to global issues at a young age. But seeing poverty all around him each day was unsettling and confusing. Many of the people he knew were desensitized to the problem. For them, the poor were a reminder of what could happen to them in a city where millions of people were chasing few opportunities; others simply could not grasp the scale and complexity of the challenge, let alone how to actually do something about it.
Rao had a different reaction. From an early age he had a desire to understand and reduce inequality. With an interest in engineering, he was drawn to technology and development as a potential solution. “At MIT, while I was getting my master’s, I first got interested in advances in information technology as something of an equalizer that might provide developing countries an opportunity to leapfrog,” he said recently. “But then I took courses on energy, and I was gripped by the challenge of sustainable development, particularly in emerging economies that needed growth. It raised puzzles, both intellectual and moral, that seemed unaddressed in the discourse.”
Rao, who last year joined the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies as assistant professor of energy systems, now studies energy and development in the context of climate change — particularly the social impacts of evolving energy policy on developing countries. Since 2015, he has also led a project, Decent Living Energy
, which helps quantify the energy needs — and climate impacts — of eradicating poverty in India, Brazil, and South Africa. In a recent interview, he described his innovative approach to understanding the relationship between energy and poverty, its implications on an increasingly crowded planet, and how society can help improve the lives of billions of people without exacerbating global warming.