Female Disruptors: Graciela Chichilnisky of ‘Global Thermostat’ On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
“The work I am doing can change the global economy,
making the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere
the new petroleum, while reversing climate change and
helping achieve basic needs for the poorest people
on Earth. It is possible.”
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in Argentina in a prominent Jewish family. My father, a Professor of Neurology at the University of Buenos Aires and minister of Public Health under Perón, built hundreds of hospitals all over Argentina. I still have some of the letters that Perón wrote to my father. When I was a child, Buenos Aires seemed a magical place at a magical time. People were interesting and intense. In reality, Buenos Aires then reminds me of New York now.
Toward the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, though, the military staged several coup d’états and in one of them they closed down the University in Buenos Aires. I was finishing high school at that time and had started taking University courses without permission. I met wonderful professors and students who opened my eyes to the world of science and mathematics. An MIT professor, Warren Ambrose, a well-known mathematician, was teaching at the University before it closed. He arranged to take six Argentinian students to MIT to continue their studies. The other five students were taking doctoral courses in mathematics — except for me.
Although I had not gone to college, MIT accepted me, a single mother without a college degree, as a Special Graduate Student in Mathematics. The Ford Foundation gave me a scholarship. After a year of very hard but enjoyable work, I was ranked at the top of the Mathematics Ph.D. class. I then became an official Ph.D. candidate and obtained a doctorate in Mathematics, and then another in Economics at U.C. Berkeley.
I have taught at Stanford, Harvard, and Columbia University where I am a Professor of Economics and Mathematical Statistics, and Director of the Columbia Consortium for Risk Management. My topics in Mathematics are Algebraic Topology and Nonlinear Analysis. In Economics, I have done work in international trade, development economics, extensive work in environmental economics, on the economics of markets and social risk, economic theory including game theory, growth theory, the economics of networks, and the economics of gender.
All of this helped form my determination to impact the global environmental risks we face. That is why I created the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which resolved climate change for the Kyoto protocol nations. I co-founded Global Thermostat with Peter Eisenberger in 2010. We invented a patented carbon capture process that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so that it can be re-used commercially. We currently have a partnership with Exxon Mobil in which we are working together to bring our technology to scale. I am very close to reversing climate change now. It is incredibly challenging, but possible.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The work I am doing can change the global economy, making the carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere the new petroleum, while reversing climate change and helping achieve basic needs for the poorest people on Earth. It is possible.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have made so many mistakes over the course of my career — and I continue making them. It is difficult to think which is funniest.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I have had many mentors: from famous mathematicians, Nobel Laureates in Economics, and great politicians to famous physicists. It is long list and probably worth writing a book about. They are truly impressive, in fact, much more so than me.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
One never knows when a disruptive innovation will be positive — but it is true that disruption for disruption’s sake is dangerous. The issue is to maintain flexibility so that you can adapt to challenges not to disrupt.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
The best 3 words are, “believe in yourself.”
When I created the economic approach to measuring poverty called Basic Needs in 1975 and then the carbon market of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, both of which became international laws in 1992 and in 2005, respectively, I was told they were impossible to implement and that I should abandon them.
Furthermore, it turns out that the Kyoto carbon market has traded almost one trillion dollars so far, and has been, in great part, responsible for the solar energy revolution. My work has helped lead to hundreds of billions of dollars to be transferred to poorer nations like China, which helped the country use the money for building thousands of solar photovoltaic plants, reducing the cost by 80% in 10 years. This will transform in a couple of decades the $57 trillion global power plant infrastructure, which is responsible for about 45 percent of global emissions of CO2. It can be done. Just as long as you believe in yourself.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I will complete the job of reversing climate change, turn Global Thermostat into a $1 billion company, and revolutionize quantum theory using topology for the benefit of understanding what is time and who we really are.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I truly see only one challenge and that is male chauvinism.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
The research that I have done for my own books and papers have had the deepest impact on my thinking. I have written 16 books and over 300 papers.
My most recent book, Reversing Climate Change: How Carbon Removals Can Resolve Climate Change and Fix the Economy, was just published by World Scientific Publishing. In it, I state unequivocally that the Earth is at a crisis point.
The planet’s polar caps are melting, and the sea levels are rising. We have increasingly violent, frequent, and severe climate events, major floods, and unusual severe droughts that do not correspond statistically to standard deviations from the mean. Thousands of scientists from all over the world have come to the conclusion that changes in temperature are associated with changes in the concentration of greenhouse gases, of which the main one is carbon dioxide, and that the mean temperature is increasing due mostly to the burning of fossil fuels — coal, natural gas and petroleum for economic purposes: industrialization.
The next few years will determine whether we will implement solutions or unleash irreversible, catastrophic damage. In my book, I present concrete solutions for reversing climate change.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I am starting a movement to bring the most amount of good to the most people. It all begins with Global Thermostat and carbon capture as my team and I work to reverse catastrophic climate change. We hope that thousands of corporations, industries, non-profits, and other local and international organizations will join us in thwarting the biggest threat to the future of our planet that we have ever experienced.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It is easier to create the future than to predict it.”