A Conversation with the Co-founder and Chair of Climate Change AI

Priya Donti is a multitasker and a high achiever. The former New Chapter Development Director at Engineers for a Sustainable World is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, and a U.S. Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellow. Her research lies at the intersection of machine learning, electric power systems, and climate change mitigation. Priya is also a co-founder and chair of Climate Change AI (CCAI), an initiative to catalyze impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning.


Tell us about Climate Change AI

Climate Change AI is a volunteer initiative that aims to lower the barriers to doing impactful work at the intersection of climate change and machine learning. We were founded in June 2019 after releasing a 60-page report called “Tackling Climate Change with Machine Learning,” which offers an overview of the ways in which AI and machine learning can be used with high leverage to address climate change. Since then, we have organized workshops and events at the top machine learning conferences and the UN Climate Change Conference, held mentorship programs to match individuals with complementary expertise, and created a host of online resources (such as tutorials, lists of relevant datasets, and a digital discussion forum) to foster education and ongoing discussion.


What do you hope to change with Climate Change AI?

We believe that tackling climate change will require concerted action from all corners of society. As part of this, our goal is to make it easier for good ideas at the intersection of climate change and machine learning to actually get implemented on the ground. In order to do this, CCAI has worked to build bridges between individuals and organizations who are working in relevant areas, put together educational resources on climate change and machine learning, and advanced discourse about important considerations to keep in mind.


What makes Climate Change AI unique?

We believe that machine learning can be a powerful tool in supporting or accelerating strategies to address the climate crisis, for instance by helping with battery design, methane leak detection, flood mapping, and hundreds of other applications. That said, fundamentally, machine learning is only a tool – and its potential for good or harm has a lot to do with how it is actually applied in practice. As a result, we have made it one of our key focuses to raise awareness about machine learning’s strengths, limitations, and potential side effects in climate change contexts. We believe these kinds of discussions are critical to ensuring that machine learning is used impactfully and responsibly.


How has being involved with ESW changed you personally?

I was involved with ESW for about 8 years, first as a member and then co-president of the ESW chapter at Harvey Mudd College, and later as the New Chapter Development Director at ESW-HQ. During my time at Harvey Mudd, we took on projects ranging from running a school-wide energy competition to doing building energy audits in order to convince the Mudd administration to set up a $1M Green Fund, to participating in public hearings by the California Public Utilities Commission. At ESW-HQ, my role was to guide the development of new ESW chapters at colleges and universities across the US and Canada.


Through these experiences, I learned a lot about the many different ways (technical, social, and political) that one can advocate for sustainable change, and picked up many leadership skills that have informed my activities since then. Being a part of ESW also gave me the opportunity to meet many smart people who are passionate about environmental and social sustainability, and those interactions have definitely shaped the way I think about these issues.


Any exciting events coming from Climate Change AI?

We’ll soon be releasing a Wiki to help promote the sharing of problems, datasets, and organizations that people can dive into and connect with. We also have plans to run a summer school and put together additional educational materials geared at researchers and practitioners from multi-disciplinary backgrounds. We also plan to run an innovation grants program to fund impactful research.


If you’d like to get plugged in, I’d encourage you to sign up for our newsletter, join our digital discussion forum, or come to one of our fortnightly virtual happy hours in order to meet others in this space. For more information, please see the Climate Change AI website: www.climatechange.ai.