Q&A: Claire Walsh on how J-PAL’s King Climate Action Initiative tackles the twin climate and poverty crises

Claire Walsh, the associate director of policy at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) Global and project director of the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI), talks about the work of K-CAI since its launch in 2020, and describes the ways its projects are making a difference. K-CAI is the flagship climate change programme of J-PAL, which innovates, tests and scales solutions at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation, together with policy partners worldwide.


Q: According to the King Climate Action Initiative (K-CAI), any attempt to address poverty effectively must also simultaneously address climate change. Why is that?

A: Climate change will disproportionately harm people in poverty, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, because they tend to live in places that are more exposed to climate risk. These are nations in sub-Saharan Africa and South and Southeast Asia where low-income communities rely heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods, so extreme weather — heat, droughts, and flooding — can be devastating for people’s jobs and food security. In fact, the World Bank estimates that up to 130 million more people may be pushed into poverty by climate change by 2030.

This is unjust because these countries have historically emitted the least; their people didn’t cause the climate crisis. At the same time, they are trying to improve their economies and improve people’s welfare, so their energy demands are increasing, and they are emitting more. But they don’t have the same resources as wealthy nations for mitigation or adaptation, and many developing countries understandably don’t feel eager to put solving a problem they didn’t create at the top of their priority list. This makes finding paths forward to cutting emissions on a global scale politically challenging.

For these reasons, the problems of enhancing the well-being of people experiencing poverty, addressing inequality, and reducing pollution and greenhouse gases are inextricably linked.

Q: So how does K-CAI tackle this hybrid challenge?

A: Our initiative is pretty unique. We are a competitive, policy-based research and development fund that focuses on innovating, testing, and scaling solutions. We support researchers from MIT and other universities, and their collaborators, who are actually implementing programs, whether NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], government, or the private sector. We fund pilots of small-scale ideas in a real-world setting to determine if they hold promise, followed by larger randomized, controlled trials of promising solutions in climate change mitigation, adaptation, pollution reduction, and energy access. Our goal is to determine, through rigorous research, if these solutions are actually working — for example, in cutting emissions or protecting forests or helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change. And finally, we offer path-to-scale grants which enable governments and NGOs to expand access to programs that have been tested and have strong evidence of impact.

We think this model is really powerful. Since we launched in 2020, we have built a portfolio of over 30 randomized evaluations and 13 scaling projects in more than 35 countries. And to date, these projects have informed the scale ups of evidence-based climate policies that have reached over 15 million people.

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