Tim McDonnell, Climate & Energy Editor at Semafor, joins Rose and Katie for a conversation about his approach to climate reporting for varied audiences, the role of renewables in Ukraine’s energy security, and how he went from geotagging rattlesnakes to reporting on all things climate and energy.
Tim McDonnell is the Climate & Energy Editor at Semafor. Tim has covered the business and science of climate change for more than a decade from front lines of the crisis around the world. He is currently based in Kyiv, and has previously lived in San Francisco, NYC, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt. Tim was formerly on the staff of NPR and Mother Jones, and has written for The New York Times, National Geographic, National Public Radio, The Washington Post, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Economist, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Slate, IRIN, Wired, Huffington Post, Nautilus, Grist, Audubon, Sierra, and elsewhere.
- Tim at Semafor, where you can see his recent work and sign up for Semafor Net Zero.
- Tim’s website.
- Tim recommends reporting from Axios, Bloomberg, specifically Andrew Freedman and Akshat Rathi
- Check out Tim’s recent reporting on Ukraine and renewable energy, and COP28
- What makes Tim optimistic about the global energy transition? The rate of electric vehicle adoption. Read Tim’s recent reporting on electric vehicles here.
ROSE MUTISO: Hi, I am Rose Mutiso.
KATIE AUTH: And I am Katie Auth, and this is High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.
ROSE MUTISO: On today’s show we have Tim McDonnell. Tim is the climate and energy editor at Semafor. You may know his name because it shows up twice a week in your inbox with the Semafor Net Zero newsletter, which we love. His newsletter takes a truly global approach. Covering everything from emerging climate tech to international geopolitics, to World Bank reform, and whatever’s going on in the US Congress, which is a lot, as you know. So before joining Semafor, Tim worked for Quartz and Mother Jones, and has written for a number of outlets including The New York Times. He’s lived in San Francisco, New York, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, and now in Kyiv.
KATIE AUTH: So I’m excited to talk to Tim because Tim’s Net Zero newsletter has truly become one of my few go-to reads in the morning. It’s insightful, it’s just wonky enough and it’s incredibly diverse. And his career is particularly interesting to me because he’s lived in places and written about the energy transition from settings that are at such drastically different stages of energy innovation and investment. And he’s one of the few people in the climate space who actually has that breadth of perspective. And also as someone who fantasized about being a journalist as a kid and sometimes still does, I am super interested in his process, kind of how he does what he does, how he knows when a story is a story, and how he tries to set himself apart at this time when thankfully, there is more and more climate journalism competing for our attention.
ROSE MUTISO: Yeah. And you know, today’s episode is extra special because Tim is actually the first journalist we’ve ever had on the podcast. We have kind of specialized in super nerdy, wonky types, buried in the depths of like academia and think tanks and multilateral organizations.
KATIE AUTH: Tim is wonky.
ROSE MUTISO: It’s true, it’s true. Yeah, you have a special pass, you’re part of our tribe. Anyways, I am generally curious about his unique perspective on the issues that we work on. You know, being in the thick of specific energy and climate topics, working kind of on our end of things, we sometimes get tunnel vision. And, Tim, I’m really hoping that you can help us zoom out a bit and give us a bit of that real world view of what people out there really care about when it comes to energy and climate. So no pressure, but we have high hopes for this episode, and welcome.
KATIE AUTH: Tim, you are, as we said, a climate and energy reporter, and I’m curious because I don’t know much about your early career — which of those came first? Did you want to be a journalist and you ended up focusing on climate? Or did your interest in climate and energy kind of ultimately propel you into journalism?
TIM MCDONNELL: I came into journalism from an environmental science background and I was an ecology minor as an undergraduate. One of the experiences I had when I was studying was, we spent a summer on like a field biology research course in Namibia and that was actually my first time going to Africa. And so we spent two months kind of driving around and learning about the desert. And I was working on a paper, like a research project, while I was there that was about this hydropower project and this dam they were going to build and some people that were going to be displaced because of that. And it kind of, for me, was an early opportunity to link energy, environment, and social issues and have an opportunity to write about that. That was kind of for an academic setting, but then it sort of got me thinking like, I really enjoyed that process, getting to write about that, is that something that I could do more for a public audience? So I had some friends that worked for the student newspaper at the University of Arizona, where I went to school. And I went and talked to them and they had an opening to do a little bit of science journalism. So I wrote some articles for the student newspaper about different kinds of science stuff that was happening on campus. I remember one of my early stories was about geotagging rattlesnakes. So we had to go out into the desert at night and find these snakes and put these little tags on them.
KATIE AUTH: Oh geez.
ROSE MUTISO: Oh God.
TIM MCDONNELL: He was doing population genetics on these snakes. Anyway, so that was very cool to get to do that. And then, you know, getting to write about that for the paper and it was a great experience. So from there I kind of, you know, took off and, and went into kind of doing the science journalism and my first job. And I worked for the student newspaper for the rest of the time I was in school there. And then I worked for a little bit after school at the magazine of the Sierra Club, obviously an environmental focus there. And then jumped over to Mother Jones. And when I was at Mother Jones, I didn’t totally know what focus I should really have. I mean, the environment is sort of too broad of a category and needed to narrow it down a little bit, and this was at a time when climate change was starting to come into its own as a beat for journalists and it kind of hadn’t really been before in that way. And something where there was a need to have somebody dedicated to focus on that. And so my editors there encouraged me to focus on climate and energy and also to kind of start to think of myself maybe slightly less as like a science reporter and more of a business reporter, which was something I hadn’t really thought of before, but I think actually made a lot of sense and kind of clicked in for me, in a way of how to kind of approach this beat.
KATIE AUTH: Can you explain that a little bit more? Why? Why business?
TIM MCDONNELL: I think, you know, there’s a million different kind of ways to come at climate and, and energy reporting obviously, but, you know, for Mother Jones and I think for a lot of publications, you know, up to now including Semafor, certainly for Quartz and other places where I’ve worked, you know, this is a, it’s a story about the economy and it’s a story about companies and it’s a story about how people in the private sector for better or worse, you know, provide opportunities or, you know, are impeding the energy transition or, you know, kind of, it goes both ways. And, you know, that was just, and I feel like it’s an area where there’s a lot of tension, and a lot of interesting kind of angles to unpack. So that’s kind of where I came to it from, and then, you know, that’s just sort of brought me up to today.
ROSE MUTISO: So that’s really cool. I just want to say I’m so jealous of enviro, bio, field-based studies. I remember when I was an undergrad, all the cool study abroads were those departments like Namibia or the American Southwest, and engineering majors, we were like sent to the lab. I almost, pursued an Earth sciences minor just so that I could go on a cool study abroad, but I did not succeed. So the lab, it was for me.
TIM MCDONNELL: I enjoyed the being in the field part of it and the talking to people and the writing about it and that kind of stuff, more than the, like, statistics and, you know, chemistry side, like, of doing that other stuff later. So that kind of helped me narrow the path a bit.
ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, well I think it’s really cool that you’ve kind of connected your environmental science background into this kind of massive public service, you know, educating the masses on these topics. So you seem to have a knack for getting stationed in places with very timely energy stories. For example, you were in Egypt in the lead-up to COP27 and its gas revolution, and now you’re in Ukraine. So I won’t speculate on causality and correlation. But I do know that your wife, who works for the Washington Post, has a hand in your moving around. But regardless of where you’re based, your coverage is global. So how, if at all, does your physical location end up influencing the stories that you cover?
TIM MCDONNELL: It does and it doesn’t, I mean to some extent. Semafor, for example, the newsletter that I do, has a very global focus and so, you know, I’m here in Ukraine now. I was in Cairo before. I do write about those places in the newsletter, but of course I still have to cover energy policy, and climate policy, and energy markets, in the US and Europe and Africa and many other places, which is not always easy, right? To kind of maintain a finger on the pulse of all these stories that are happening all over the globe. And I’m kind of sitting here behind a computer and there’s, you know, limits to how much you can really do. And having a lot of conversations on the phone and on Zoom. And, you know, that’s a new approach to doing this kind of journalism that was a door that was kind of opened during the pandemic that, you know, has become a little bit more realistic now. But that being said, you know, I do try to elevate stories, that are happening around me, which are, you know, in some ways the most obvious or visible things for me, since I’m living through them and sometimes it’s easier to just go have a coffee with someone in real life, which, you know, all my amazing colleagues who also do climate journalism from New York and DC and London and other places, you know, that’s more of their normal life. But I’m kind of like hovering in this digital space on the outside and I think it kind of informs your approach. You know, I lived in Cairo for a few years and we were moving around sub-Saharan Africa for a number of years before that and I just think it kind of gives you a different perspective on what kinds of stories are important and how they really impact the people that are living on the front lines of climate change. And I consider it one of the privileges of my career that I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time talking with people who are most immediately affected. I know I said this is kind of like, in some ways a business story, but it is ultimately still a story about people, kind of just living their lives day-to-day and, you know, what are they dealing with.
KATIE AUTH: I was curious, you know, now that you’re in Ukraine, there’s clearly the energy transition and energy infrastructure and investment and climate. They’re complicated enough on their own, but it’s an entirely different thing to be in a country that’s, you know, actively under attack and fighting for survival, and I’m curious whether being in Ukraine during this period has changed anything fundamental about the way you think about either energy security or you know, climate. What’s changed for you since being in Ukraine?
TIM MCDONNELL: I think that when you look at the energy market here, and you mentioned security, you know. What one thing that being here has really brought home for me or made very visible, is the extent to which renewables and distributed energy have an incredible impact on improving energy security. And people, you know, the gas infrastructure and the flow of gas has been weaponized throughout this conflict. One thing that Ukraine is really pushing to do now is accelerate the pace of their energy transition. They’re building a ton of solar and wind, despite those things still being, you know, at risk — subject to bombardment or being affected or destroyed by the conflict in one way or another. But they really see renewables as a path towards greater energy security, as well as economic development. And it’s very much linked to the conflict. I had a really interesting conversation with the mayor of one small town, near the Russian border that’s been very close to the frontline throughout the conflict, who told me that they’ve been investing a lot in putting solar on all of their municipal buildings over the last year, in part because the money that they’re saving on their electric bills by doing that, they’re now spending on weapons instead. You know, it’s part of the conflict for them. So, I mean, that’s not going to be the case for most places going through the energy transition, but it is very much a part of the story here. So I think what’s going to be interesting is, you know, as this conflict progresses and Ukraine already through this conflict has now come to be one of the leading militaries in Europe just because of the experiences that they’ve had, forces that have been brought to bear here, I think they also could similarly come to be at the very leading edge of the energy transition in Europe because they are kind of being forced into that position by the conflict. So I think that’s going to be a really interesting thing to continue watching. And they’ve gotten some international support for that, but obviously, it’s financially still kind of difficult. So, I think that’s the phase that they’re at now.
ROSE MUTISO: So Tim, that’s super interesting. And picking up on this theme of disruptive forces in the kind of climate and energy story that has been unfolding over the years. So you’ve been covering this topic for over a decade now and a lot has changed in terms of what’s relevant, what’s hot, what’s not, how different modalities, like in this case you’re talking about different modalities or imperatives that make certain technologies or ideas come to the forefront, like in the Ukraine case that you just described. So what’s one thing that has stood the test of time that you keep returning to over and over in your reporting? Or is it just all change, change, change, disruption, and, you know, last season is out, this is like the new way to think about things?
TIM MCDONNELL: In a way when you cover this beat for a long time, it’s like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, I mean, there’s a number of themes or sort of threads that have, I wouldn’t say have remained consistent, but have continued to surface. I mean, the story around solar has completely, totally changed in the last decade that I’ve been doing — I mean when I started reporting on climate, it was still like this thing for hippies on their roofs, and now it’s like the fastest growing energy source. It’s the cheapest energy source in most parts of the world, as you know very well. So that part of the story has been really interesting to watch. I mean, we’ve just seen incredible growth in all of these other clean energy technologies like EVs and wind, which has had some troubles recently, but wind and electric vehicles and batteries and like all this other stuff where there’s just been this incredible pace of change. And it’s been also interesting to see the policy discussion evolve over the last decade. You know, we don’t really hear so much anymore of like straight-up climate change science denial, which obviously used to be a lot more common. I mean, sometimes it still comes up in US politics, but not nearly as much as it used to. And I think that we really have like, you know, if you think back to pre-Paris, compared to now, we really have like bent the curve on global emissions in a way, I mean, compared to the trajectory that we were on beforehand. So that’s been really encouraging, but as we all know, it’s not happening nearly fast enough and there’s still a huge deficit of investment in all of the technologies that I just mentioned and more, especially in developing countries — way, way behind, in terms of getting investment for those things. So, there is progress, but it’s also like the more I’ve been doing this, you know, the more you start to really feel like this kind of ticking clock and sometimes I’ve talked with my friends in this space about how everybody always talks about 2050 — that’s the big number on the horizon, we have to be net zero by 2050. And for me personally, 2050 is around the time when maybe I’ll be retiring, so it’s sort of like that’s the end of my career, 2050. So my career as a journalist if you step back, runs from just before the Paris Agreement until then.
ROSE MUTISO: Mm-hm, that’s an interesting way to frame it.
KATIE AUTH: Yeah.
TIM MCDONNELL: So I’m kind of right in the thick of it in that way. So I don’t know what’s going to happen by then, but it’ll be really interesting to watch it continue to unfold.
ROSE MUTISO: So one thing I’m thinking of now is —especially when you’re talking about the massive changes in terms of technologies, like solar really becoming mainstream over your career so far — right now we are on the cusp of many new ideas, right? Some less new than others, like EVs, others like, carbon capture, direct air capture, carbon markets, any number of new topics, green hydrogen. So as a journalist you probably have to make some quick assessments, and make some hot takes. How do you make decisions with incomplete information now about, what’s really going to be enduring, what’s really going to be a thing or not? And maybe what’s one thing that you kind of misjudged early on that you’re revising your opinion of?
TIM MCDONNELL: I’m sure I’ve misjudged many things, if you go back and read my stories over the years. But I think you have to have a lot of humility to do this job. The nature of my job is, for better or worse, that I’m required to make kind of snap judgments about how I want to characterize a certain development or a certain technology. And, you know, I try not to say like, I know for sure this thing is, this thing is going to be the thing, you know? I mean, you know, I think you kind of approach it with just a sense of curiosity and I like to elevate in the newsletter technologies or startups or ideas that just seem interesting and cool or are solving a problem in a new way. You mentioned direct air capture or carbon removal is definitely one where like a lot of people are throwing a lot of different stuff at the wall. We don’t know what’s going to stick, what’s going to really be viable. There’s probably some, you know, there could be some side effects, in terms of energy consumption and water use for that example that haven’t been fully explored yet. We don’t know how this stuff is going to really scale. It’s all just at this like super micro pilot stage and what does that actually look like when it gets bigger. So, you know, I like to just kind of bring these things up and shine a light on different things that I think are cool without necessarily like always planting my flag in, I know this technology is the way to do things. But also like maintaining laser focus and scanning constantly for what are the unforeseen consequences. Like where is the snake oil or the red herrings? What are the kind of like blind spots in policy or in technology. And I feel like it’s my job is just sort of shining a light on those blind spots basically, and making sure that people know about them. And then just elevating things that I think are cool, because I’ve been doing this for almost 15 years. So, if there’s something that I haven’t heard about, I can say with a high degree of certainty that most of my readers probably haven’t heard about it either. So I can kind of approach things that way and, and hopefully in the insight that I’m able to deliver, just give people a new way of, you know, give them some kind of nugget of information that they didn’t previously have about the energy transition. That’s what I hope to do week-to-week.
KATIE AUTH: Yeah. That’s awesome, and it’s actually, kind of hearing you describe it, it’s strikingly similar in many ways to how Rose and I think about our jobs too.
ROSE MUTISO: Yeah, exactly. I came into this being like, well, the journalist tell us about, you know, you’re on this pedestal, tell us about your world. And it’s like actually quite similar to ours.
TIM MCDONNELL: We’re all in the same boat. I mean, look, nobody knows what’s going to happen later. So I think we just have to take the best information that is available to us and do the best that we can to kind of highlight the pros and cons of how things are developing.
ROSE MUTISO: Yeah. Well, I think it’s quite refreshing to hear this appreciation for curiosity, exploration, nuance, because I think on the outside it seems like there’s so much pressure to have a firm opinion, to have a hot take, to take a contrarian view. To get the hits, the likes, the headline. And maybe it’s no surprise that a lot of us wonks follow you, and your newsletter, and your work because it really resonates with how we think. So, thanks for that.
KATIE AUTH: Yeah. And I guess related to that, actually, Rose, we wanted to ask you one last question that’s really about how you see yourself in this bigger ecosystem of climate and energy journalism. I mean, we’re really lucky right now to finally be in a world where there is much more attention being paid to these issues and you have dedicated outlets and newsletters that are covering this. Canary, and Bloomberg has a big section on this, and I’m curious how you try to differentiate yourself, either in the way that you write or in the stories you cover. Like how is Tim McDonald different from the rest of the field?
TIM MCDONNELL: Yeah, you’re right. I mean, it’s great to, I mean, it’s an amazing space. All the people that you just mentioned and many more are close friends of mine. I’m getting ready to go in a few weeks to COP28, and will be sitting at the same desk next to Andrew Freedman from Axios and Akshat [Rathi] from Bloomberg and all the other people that are doing amazing work in this space, and whose work I obviously read myself every day. So yeah, you know, how do we distinguish ourselves? I mean, you know, that’s not easy. But I think it’s just trying to be looking around corners in ways that other people aren’t seeing, and to be able to give some level of insight that pulls all these pieces together in a way that other people aren’t seeing. You can read a bunch of climate newsletters or just news newsletters and get this sort of feed of facts. And what I try to do, whether it’s deals that are happening, or some policy development, or like whatever, you know, or climate disaster X that’s happening this week. I try to take those pieces, and because I’m like reading like everything on the internet, just voraciously every day, to put those together in a different combination, that’s going to yield an insight for a general audience reader, and for someone who is kind of at a more advanced level, who has a personal or professional stake in understanding the energy transition and give them something that’s useful as well. And you know, part of the way that I try to focus on doing that is with data. We do a lot of data visualization and charts and I almost see data points as characters in the stories that I write. And I’m always trying to track down what’s an interesting piece of data that, you know, might fly past most people’s kind of windshields, but I can kind of elevate in an interesting way. So that’s always the challenge. And I just hope that people get something out of it every time.
ROSE MUTISO: So speaking of charts, which, you know, we like a good chart and yours are great. Is there a trade-off though between satisfying the kind of energy climate professionals who love this detailed wonky coverage, and the charts, and the whatnot, and maximizing your overall audience?
TIM MCDONNELL: I don’t think so, because the way that we try to do it with our newsletter is to just give like a mix of stuff. So, you know, if you open any newsletter of mine from day-to-day, there’s going to be a wide range of content available. Different kinds of stories, different sort of formats and lengths of things, and kind of, you know, different ways that we’re presenting information and I don’t necessarily assume that every single thing in every newsletter is going to appeal to every reader, but that’s why I try to bring in a diversity of viewpoints and diversity of formats so that, you know, hopefully, everyone who’s reading it takes something out of there that they find interesting. I’m willing to kind of go down these rabbit holes that are interesting for the wonkier people. But you know, I still have a lot of readers who are just general audience and my own editors, sometimes I know more about the stuff than they do, which is normal, so if they understand what I’m talking about, then I feel like I’ve pitched it and if they don’t, which definitely happens, then I know I’ve done something, I need to maybe pull it back a little bit. But, you know, we kind of just try to calibrate in a way.
ROSE MUTISO: I love that, something for everyone. It’s like, the chart on the World Bank, review of World Bank reform, and maybe a little nugget about, say, Britney Spears at the end, somewhere there. Make everyone happy.
KATIE AUTH: I’ve never seen Britney Spears in a Tim McDonnell piece.
ROSE MUTISO: I challenge you, Tim, I challenge you to find the energy angle.
TIM MCDONNELL: Challenge accepted.
KATIE AUTH: Tim, so we’re ending each interview this season with the same question for all of our guests, which is to think a little bit about your journey throughout your career. Looking back, what’s one thing that’s changed the most, not about your work, but about you since you started in this field?
TIM MCDONNELL: Great question. I think that I have, I think that my empathy has deepened for people who are experiencing climate change in a lot of different ways. And, you know, I have become much more, I think, receptive to hearing ideas across a very broad spectrum of backgrounds and political positions. And you know, as I said before, the clock is really ticking on all of this and we just, we need like every possible solution to be happening a million times faster than it is. And so, I’ve tried to keep my mind as open as possible, and I hope that over time it’s just gotten more and more open, and also with a filter for BS but I feel like I’ve become more empathetic to different positions over time.
KATIE AUTH: I like that.
ROSE MUTISO: Okay, Tim, now it’s time to play short circuit. So this is a rapid-fire round of five questions. Boom, boom, boom. Don’t overthink it. So are you ready?
TIM MCDONNELL: I’m ready, bring it on.
KATIE AUTH: Number one, what’s one thing that makes you optimistic about the global energy transition?
TIM MCDONNELL: The rate of EV adoption, very nerdy answer, but it’s blowing up, it’s on track.
KATIE AUTH: Rose loves it.
ROSE MUTISO: I love it and if this wasn’t a rapid-fire round, I’d ask you a follow-up, but I will not, I will be disciplined. So, okay. What’s your favorite African country to live in? And full disclosure, I’m from Kenya, so no pressure.
TIM MCDONNELL: Oh my god, I cannot possibly answer this question in a way that’s not going to get me canceled by some group. I have loved, I have deeply loved every African country that I’ve had the privilege to visit. I’m going to go ahead and just go on the record that Nigel Jollof is my preference. Sorry, it’s the best one.
ROSE MUTISO: Oh my goodness. So, I love how you’re like, I don’t want to annoy anyone, but I’m going to cause some divisions and stir up controversy.
KATIE AUTH: Okay. Imagine you’ve just stayed up all night meeting a huge deadline. What’s your favorite way to recover?
TIM MCDONNELL: I go out with my dog, my dog Babette, my golden doodle baby. She’s the love my life, and I would have to go out and walk her whether I wanted to or not at that particular moment. So that’s definitely what I would be doing.
ROSE MUTISO: Oh, that’s sweet. So if you weren’t a journalist, what would you be?
TIM MCDONNELL: You know, I play music. I’ve been in a lot of rock bands, so I would probably, you know, I would love to just be a rock star, do something like that, casual, whatever.
KATIE AUTH: Yeah, not ambitious at all. Just a rock star.
ROSE MUTISO: Just a rock. Also, I’m starting to see Britney Spears crossover. It’s kind of emerging.
TIM MCDONNELL: I’ll send you a link. I have something for you later. I had a bread-baking business for a while too, so I could bring that back.
KATIE AUTH: What!
ROSE MUTISO: A man of so many talents.
KATIE AUTH: There’s so much to dig into here. But final question: So, a certain editor said on Twitter at some point that Quartz — which for those who don’t read it, is another journalism outlet — is Axios after two beers, what is Semafor?
TIM MCDONNELL: Oh wow. Semafor, it’s just all of the above. It’s after a bowl of clam chowder because our office in New York is over a clam chowder restaurant.
KATIE AUTH: That’s awesome.
ROSE MUTISO: Alright, Tim, thank you so much for being on the podcast. We’ve really enjoyed this conversation and we hope that if we ask you back in the future, you’ll say yes and maybe, maybe play some of your music, bake some bread, do a demo. We’ll figure it out.
TIM MCDONNELL: I’ll bring Babette too.
KATIE AUTH: That’s it for today’s show. High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, matching policymakers with evidence-based pathways to a high energy future for everyone. Find out more at info energyforgrowth.org and share your questions and thoughts with Rose and I @EnergyforGrowth on Twitter and LinkedIn.
ROSE MUTISO: So if you like today’s episode, be sure to rate and review the podcast and tell a friend about us. Bob Lalasz is our executive producer and Audrey Zenner is our senior producer. Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.