April 11, 2023
The Communications of Change
CMU alumna Sweta Chakraborty fights the climate crisis with behavioral science
By Hilary Daninhirsch
Carnegie Mellon University alumna Sweta Chakraborty would like to talk to the world about climate change.
So she appears on major national networks. She gives TEDx Talks; speaks at climate conferences; teams up with celebrities like Nicolaj Coster-Waldeu of “Game of Thrones” fame and hosts events like a “Don’t Choose Extinction” panel discussion at South by Southwest. In June, she’s slated to attend World Environment Day 2023 sponsored by the United Nations.
A climate behavioral scientist and CEO of North America for We Don’t Have Time, Sweta relays the dangers of climate change clearly and proactively to the public and offers data- and evidence-based solutions ranging from sustainable fashion to cellular agriculture, too.
“We’re in a communications crisis alongside a climate crisis,” says Sweta, a 2006 Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences graduate. “I feel like I have a really significant role to play to overcome the communications crisis that will help us overcome the climate crisis.”
“We’ve known the planet is warming for decades. Despite all the information we had, with 99.9% of scientists agreeing that the planet is warming, we’re on a dangerous trajectory.”
Getting that message across to those who need to hear it is a challenge, but Sweta is up to this vital, global task.
“We’re in a communications crisis alongside a climate crisis. I feel like I have a really significant role to play to overcome the communications crisis that will help us overcome the climate crisis.”
Closing the Gap
At Carnegie Mellon, Sweta double majored in decision sciences and international relations. While decision sciences, which falls under the umbrella of behavioral science, is now a mainstream major at universities, it was a fairly new discipline back in the early 2000s.
“No one discipline alone can explain human behavior,” she says. “Behavioral science brings together all these fields to understand the mismatch between how humans perceive the world and risk. It’s the study of perception versus reality and how to close that gap between what people are scared of or what they are not, based on the data and statistics of real risk.”
“Whether we trust who is communicating the risk to us is one of the biggest predictors of what humans will prescribe or not prescribe to risk.”
She credits Baruch Fischhoff, the Howard Heinz University Professor for Politics and Strategy in the College of Engineering’s Department of Engineering and Public Policy and at CMU’s Institute for Politics and Strategy, for guiding her to her current path.
“He’s a pioneer in the field and took the time to cultivate young people,” she says. “I was lucky to be one of them. It shows what professors at CMU can do for students to guide their career trajectory. It resulted in me pursuing this field and becoming a behavioral scientist.”
Fischhoff valued Sweta’s love of the field as much as she appreciated his guidance.
"Sweta is just the kind of student we hoped would find us when (former CMU Associate Professor) Jenn Lerner and I created the decision science major, someone who is eager for the challenge of integrating diverse disciplinary perspectives, and then applying them to tackle complex world problems,” Fischhoff says. “We might have provided the education, but it is Sweta who provided the passion and energy. We can all be proud of her accomplishments to date and to come."
Sweta went on to earn her Ph.D. in risk management at King’s College London and complete her postdoctoral work at the University of Oxford. Prior to her current roles, she worked in academia and for a think tank.
“If the public doesn’t get on board, no climate forward policy will pass that aligns to the climate science. It’s not that we don’t have the solutions or innovations. We just need to use behavioral science to mobilize the public and get the support to reach commercial viability and enjoy widespread public adoptions.”
Communicating to Mobilize
According to Sweta, science communications surrounding the climate crisis need a course correction.
“If the public doesn’t get on board, no climate forward policy will pass that aligns to the climate science,” Sweta says. “It’s not that we don’t have the solutions or innovations. We just need to use behavioral science to mobilize the public and get the support to reach commercial viability and enjoy widespread public adoptions.”
Because she was frustrated that this wasn’t happening at scale, Sweta joined forces with the founder of We Don’t Have Time, the world’s largest social media that shares ideas and supports accelerated solutions to the climate crisis. In November 2021, she became the CEO of North America.
“It’s a support platform for moving climate change forward — entrenched in behavioral science, where individuals, policymakers, CEOs and celebrities come together to talk about climate solutions,” she says. “The idea is to bring the climate change conversation to the forefront and empower people to help overcome the climate crisis.”
We Don’t Have Time boasts 100,000 active users in 160 countries.
The company is in the process of pitching investors with the goal of going public, and Sweta continues to get the word out about climate issues in her writing and with op-ed pieces in peer-reviewed publications.
“I want to bring what behavioral scientists know about human behavior to the public, so we can better align our perceptions to the science. If you’re breathing air or eating food, you’re a stakeholder in our environment.”
The Power of CMU’s Impact
Though she now lives in Washington, D.C., Sweta, who is from suburban New Jersey, chose CMU in part because of its location in a dynamic city and the freedom it offered to explore her artistic side.
Enrolling in a six-week summer course at CMU after her sophomore year in high school started her down the path to becoming a Tartan, as she fell in love with both the campus and Pittsburgh.
CMU’s community of Southeast Asian students confirmed her choice once she arrived on campus, as she grew up in a town that had few people of color.
“Coming to CMU exposed me to a very diverse undergrad pool,” Sweta says. “I met Indians that looked like me, which I hadn’t had growing up. That was really exciting and allowed me to explore that side of my heritage.”
During her undergrad years, she became involved with Mayur, the South Asian Student Association, and its dance troupe in addition to other activities. She appreciated that CMU allowed her to be part of a community that, while it had very high academic standards, also nurtured a variety of talents and outside interests.
This multi-faceted approach to education at CMU prepared Sweta to explore many different avenues to battle climate change including a possible path as a civil servant at some point advocating for climate solutions.
“I want to bring what behavioral scientists know about human behavior to the public, so we can better align our perceptions to the science,” she says. “If you’re breathing air or eating food, you’re a stakeholder in our environment.”