Varun Hedge / Sun Staff Photographer

Prof. Ravi Kanbur, applied economics and management, spoke about how fighting climate change can disproportionately affect the poor in a lecture Monday,

May 9, 2016

Cornell Professor Considers Impact of Climate Change Policies on Poor

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Efforts to mitigate climate change frequently force governments to enact policies that hurt the poor, according to Prof. Ravi Kanbur, applied economics and management.

In a lecture Monday, Kanbur discussed climate justice — which he defined as justice between generations affected by climate change, and to those harmed by climate policies, economics and philosophy — three topics he said were all interrelated.

Economics often cannot apply to the environment because it can only efficiently allocate resources when market prices reflect true scarcity — clean air, for example, has no market price — according to Kanbur.

Economists and policy makers also have to consider the long-term consequences of climate change, he said.

“We think now of externalities as extending over time to multiple future generations,” Kanbur said. “Our actions today have impacts on future generations ahead who have no say in the matter.”

Kanbur added that even when market prices are adjusted to reflect their social costs through taxes, the outcomes can have a disproportionately large effect on poor countries and the poor in rich countries.

“Think of the implication of high gasoline taxes for those who have to drive long distances for their low-paying jobs,” he said. “They lose as a result of trying to fix this problem.”

Governments then need to balance economic equality and counteracting climate change, which introduces politics and philosophy to the issue, according to Kanbur.

“Accepting that curbing carbon emissions is the right thing to do from the point of view of future generations, what do you do if the only policy instruments available to you make the poor worse off?” he asked.

Kanbur added that in order to counteract the adverse effects of climate regulation policy on the poor, “you could devise a very clever compensation scheme, as many climate activists have done,” but governments tend to lack the tools or political power to accomplish this.

While Kanbur acknowledged that addressing climate change may solve other forms of inequality and benefit this generation’s poor, he said economic injustice was likely inevitable during this process.

“As you move towards efficiency, there are going to be distributional consequences,” he said.

The issues Kanbur covered in his lecture — the final installment in a semester-long series on climate change — will be further addressed at a climate justice conference at Cornell from May 24 to 25, according to the University.