EPE TIG Week: Blossoming Needs and a Big Tent in Environmental Evaluation by Katie Butler

I am Katie Butler, a 20+ year evaluator of environmental programs. I worked in the EPA’s Office of Inspector General for 16 years, evaluating things like disaster response and fish contamination programs. Now, I run a small consulting company dedicated to improving environmental programs. I am writing to invite you into the environmental evaluation tent.

The Climate Crisis is Here

After academic arguments over climate models, Al Gore popularizing the “hockey stick” diagram, and decades of warnings, our New Unimproved Climate has arrived. We have exceeded our planetary boundaries in many ways, including climate. The UN has adopted an innovative graphic, The Doughnut of Social and Planetary Boundaries, to show and track over time how close we are to exceeding nine planetary boundaries. You can check out Climate Change at the top of the doughnut graph. The graphic shows a planetary limit of 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This 2017 version shows that we’ve exceeded this boundary, reaching 400 ppm. We are now closer to 415 ppm and climbing. As climate scientists predicted, it is warmer than average in many places, including the Arctic and Antarctic. It is also wetter than average in a few places, like my home region, the Southeastern U.S., and dryer than average in many more.

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Opportunities to address environmental issues are expanding

The good news is that Earthlings are an inventive, creative, and industrious species, and there are more and more people who want to help solve our environmental problems. In drafting this post, I searched LinkedIn’s jobs function for positions that list “sustainability” or “climate” among job functions. I found over 2,000 active jobs where, just five years ago, when maybe 10-15 sustainability or climate jobs would appear in a job source at any one time. My colleagues in the climate and sustainability world tell me that there are not enough people with expertise to fill these positions. Opportunities abound in the U.S. government as well. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 will create thousands of jobs to support that work. For example, the Act funds new climate resilience projects, drinking water improvements, and pollution remediation.

We need to build the bench of environmental evaluators

The environmental sector needs people who can design a good study, assess behavior changes, and connect them to interventions and environmental outcomes. We need information on what works well and why to maximize our chances of making a positive impact quickly. One of my favorite quotes comes from a letter “Conservation in a Wicked Complex World; Challenges and Solutions”from Conservation Letters in 2013. Game and co-authors wrote, “Conservation is not rocket science; it is far more complex.”  Each program faces specific challenges and confounding factors, but program evaluators are uniquely equipped to understand and describe what works and what does not. Program evaluators’ skills in critical thinking, research, survey design, and monitoring behavior change are crucial to helping identify and replicate successful strategies.

Rad Resources

If you’d like to start getting an idea of what types of programs have worked, there are a few efforts you can review. Three nonprofit websites have begun to compile success (or failure!) stories for environmental programs, Mongabay’s Conservation Effectiveness effort, the Evidensia partnership between ISEAL Alliance, Rainforest Alliance, WWF, and the Global Environment Facility, and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Failure Factors effort.

I hope you’ll join the effort to help us uncover the most effective solutions so that we can make a more considerable difference faster. 

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Environmental Program Evaluation TIG Week with our colleagues in the Environmental Program Evaluation Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to AEA365 come from our EPE TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365@eval.org. AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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