Climate Change Storytelling: A Q&A With Lisa Jenkins, Senior Climate Reporter at Protocol
Apr 19, 2022 Lexi Herosian
We’re always looking to work with clients who have one foot in the future—especially within our climate technology practice, where innovation is driving a movement for more mindful energy consumption and management across the nation. In honor of Earth Day this year, I sat down (virtually) with Lisa Jenkins, senior climate reporter at Protocol, to hear her perspective on Protocol’s growing focus on this vertical, how the online conversation around climate technology has, and will continue to evolve, and what this year’s Earth Day theme (“Investing in Our Planet”) means to her. Here’s a written Q&A of our chat:
The climate media landscape has evolved significantly over the past few years – keeping this in mind, could you provide me with an overview of Protocol’s Climate vertical, and what topics you’re mainly focused on right now?
Lisa: So Protocol’s Climate vertical is focused on the interplay of climate and technology. There are two main buckets here. The first is climate technology itself, which is essentially any technology that serves to mitigate or improve the situation when it comes to climate change (renewables, negative emissions technology, cultured meat, etc.) The approach that we’re taking is to be fairly critical of those technologies, because some really do live up to the hype, but others could potentially be a waste of time and money. We really try to take a critical eye when it comes to climate technology.
We also cover the technology sector and how it is approaching climate change. For example, this entails looking at the climate pledges of major technology giants, and parsing what makes a good pledge. I know my editor Brian Khan did a couple of great newsletters around this in our first week. We also take a look at what kinds of investments technology companies are making when it comes to climate.
My personal focus aligns closely with that of Protocol. For a long time, when it came to climate change, the media landscape was really focused on educating people: making sure that they knew what the greenhouse effect was, and that they realize recycling is not *necessarily* a climate solution. I’ve been really excited because, over the course of my career so far, it has become clear that most people actually have a handle on a lot of those questions now. There’s still a certain amount of education we do in our role as reporters, but we’re able to take a much more nuanced look. I think the media landscape is evolving to allow for a huge variety of climate coverage. There’s just a ton of people focused on a ton of different aspects of this crisis, and I feel very lucky to be among them.
Congratulations on launching the new Climate newsletter this year! Can you talk a little bit about your editorial goals with the newsletter, and why it’s relevant to the larger media landscape?
Lisa: Brian and I were both specifically hired for the launch of this vertical, and we’re both fairly new to Protocol. There is just so much in this space these days. We are at the point where virtually every tech company has a climate pledge, and there are announcements of new projects and new funding every single day. So it was a very logical direction for Protocol to expand, especially because a lot of the other verticals—which include FinTech, Policy, etc.—are increasingly overlapping with climate. When the Climate vertical launched, there was a real sense of excitement across the whole company, and a lot of conversations about contributing pieces and cross-vertical collaboration.
Where do you see the biggest innovations happening in climate technology (or climate tech convo)? What are you most excited about and why?
Lisa: It’s not particularly glamorous, but I’ve been really excited about the development of new battery technology and long duration battery storage. Batteries are a really important part of making sure that renewables are viable, not just when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. If you can actually store that energy and use it at all times, that is a potential game changer for the way we can integrate renewables into the grid. And although this type of technology has existed for some time, it is improving to a point where it can be scaled and really transform our electricity and transportation systems. That has potential to be really meaningful on a wider scale, really soon.
One tricky thing about climate technology is that you hear a lot of great ideas that are in very, very early stages of development. And this really is a race against time at this point.
I’ve also been excited about new data systems and emissions monitoring technologies, and the ways we can use technology to improve things we’ve been doing for centuries, like farming, for instance. All aspects of society need to be resilient to the climate crisis. The more data we have and the more technology we have to take advantage of that data, the more resilient we’re going to be.
In connection with this, I see companies are lining up net zero commitments often without a clear pathway to achieving them. With both legislative and popular support to reduce global emissions, do you think we’ll start to see more corporate accountability?
Lisa: My impression is that there are three things that actually impact corporate action: investors, policy-makers and the political winds, and—to a lesser extent—public opinion. The confluence of all three expressing concern about climate change is powerful. One illustrative example: It’s my impression that the recent SEC rules were less about the commission being worried about climate change and requesting that large corporations need to act, and more about investor concerns and insulating potential investments from climate change. I think it’s important to recognize that climate change is no longer just an issue that activists care about.
Reporting on this space would be a really hard job to do if I wasn’t fairly optimistic about the tides changing when it comes to what companies and politicians – and what society as a whole – are willing to do. It wasn’t so long ago that a big debate in journalism was: “To what extent do we give credence to people who say climate change isn’t happening and/or real?” And that is a conversation that I haven’t seen anyone engage in multiple years at this point. That part of it is encouraging.
This year’s Earth Day theme is centered around “Investing in Our Planet” – what does that mean to you? How does journalism and multimedia storytelling contribute to this mission?
Lisa: What this career and beat comes down to is that if we don’t have a livable climate, we have nothing. It supersedes all other priorities. Obviously there are other things that are arguably more pressing in the short term — like the pandemic or the war in Ukraine — but when I think about what the world looks like in the future, my biggest concern is climate change, by far. The entire concept of investment involves putting something in today that you can get a return on tomorrow, which is a decent analogy for how we need to think about a livable climate. I believe that thinking about climate change as a long-term problem and not acting on it with any urgency is an enormous mistake.
When it comes to how journalism can contribute to this mission, I've been really excited about the use of multimedia storytelling, especially when it comes to data visualization. Bloomberg had this great story on wealth and inequality, and how climate change has been impacted by the very wealthiest in society. The takeaway was extremely striking, even if you just looked at the graphics. Especially as journalism continues to evolve and people’s attention span gets shorter, the ability to convey information quickly and through multimedia is going to be really important.
I do also love climate or nature-related photography, and think it can be extremely impactful to see how our landscapes are changing in real time. Those images can make it easier for readers or viewers to understand the impact that climate change is already having on the planet, and that it’s not an abstract or distant crisis.
How can PR professionals be most helpful to your reporting? Any topics you are particularly interested in?
Lisa: In an ideal world, all pitches would only be relevant to a couple of reporters, and would be short and sweet. If you really know the person you’re pitching, it could be as simple as: “Hey, there’s some news coming soon that I think would be relevant to you. Here’s one sentence summarizing what it’s about. Let me know if you’d be interested in learning more.” If the news is relevant to the reporter, that type of message will be enough to lure them in. I can tell when somebody reads my work and has a sense of specifically what my beat is. For instance, I’m almost certainly not going to write about developments in the gas market: I cover climate technology.
And it’s important to be conscientious that journalists are being inundated every single day, and that the amount of PR professionals outnumber journalists. The people in PR who I have the best relationships with—people who I have substantial conversations with–I only connect with several times per year. It is rare that one company or organization has news that is relevant to any given journalist every single week: It’s about quality over quantity.
When it comes to being most helpful to me specifically: I tend to give a second look to projects that involve data, or include data that I can digest myself. And if a pitch is personalized and I have some spare time, I will respond with feedback–but don’t be offended if journalists as a group aren’t particularly responsive. Exclusives are great, and give you a real reason to respond, even if it’s to decline.