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Evaluation in the Face of the Climate Emergency: Observations & Synthesis

Guest Blue Marble Evaluation blog from Scott C. Chaplowe, a dedicated evaluation professional with over 20 years’ experience working with civic, public and private organizations seeking sustainable solutions for social and environmental challenges.

His academic training is in geography (UCLA), with a focus on human and natural resource management. He has been influenced by the sub-disciplines of cultural and political ecology. The former examines human adaptations to social and physical environments, and the later examines political, economic and social factors that shape how we shape the environment.  The tenants of both disciplines have instilled in him an appreciation of systems and complexity thinking to inform realistic solutions for sustainable impact.

MQP Introduction: Scott came to the launch of the Blue Marble Evaluation book at the American Evaluation Association (AEA) in Minneapolis in 2019. He has been active in working on evaluation for transformation and initiated proposals for sessions at the European Evaluation Society (EES) in September (now canceled) and AEA scheduled for Portland in November (but it actually taking place is problematic).  In this guest blog he describes the energy and interest that has emerged around evaluating global systems transformation in the face of the global climate emergency which looms heavily over our future as the pandemic emergency ultimately gives way to “the battle of our lives.” He has synthesized the key issues that he has observed emerge for evaluation. Thank you for sharing your observations and synthesis with us Scott.

The process of organizing proposals for sessions at EES and AEA sparked an active thread of email exchanges that included over 30 people from the American Evaluation Association (AEA) and Topical Interest Groups (TIG) leadership in international, environmental, humanitarian, and systems evaluation; evaluators in other VOPEs (evaluation associations/societies) and related networks such as EvalYouthEvalSDGs, EvalIndigenous, and EvalGender; and prominent thought leaders in the evaluation community. The invitation to participate a call to action in the evaluation community:

 “The urgency of climate change presents an opportunity for collective action on what is arguably the most pressing challenge we face not just as evaluators, but as inhabitants on this planet.” 

Email discussions emerged organically, partly in response to the resounding interest in and concern over the climate crisis expressed during the AEA 2019 annual conference in November 2019, but also larger than that in that others from EES and IDEAS (International Development Evaluation Association) were drawn in. It led to the 2-hour online workshop on April 7.

The workshop was generously hosted on a platform using Adobe Connect from Encompass Learning Center, with planning and facilitation led by Tessie Catsambas, Scott Chaplowe, Beverly Parsons, and Andy Rowe, and attended by over 30 participants. The discussion among evaluators in the workshop/emails reflected the intersectoral interest in climate change as a top priority echoed elsewhere in the evaluation community and other communities with which we intersect. I have synthesized my summary of key discussion points that people seemed to coalesce around:

  1. The climate crisis is urgent, real and a “canary in the coal mine” for interrelated crisis ahead. The science supporting Global Warming is irrefutable, and we have reached a point where we are beyond incrementalism. Global warming has a multiplier effect, exacerbating crisis on multiple fronts, including the escalation of biodiversity loss, zoonotic pandemics like Covid-9, large-scale weather events, water and food scarcity that contribute to social unrest in injustice, etc. We are at one of humanity’s great moral moments, alongside the abolition of slavery, the defeat of apartheid, votes for women and gay rights.  There are no bystanders; the outcomes affect us all, and future generations.
  2. Evaluation needs to champion a systemic approach the critically includes environmental sustainably. The climate crisis is critically linked to and reflects an overall disjunct in how people interact with the environment. As nature has reminds us again and again, we are all interconnected, and how we treat nature affects how it treats us, and ultimately the survival of both. Global warming exacerbates disruption and imbalance in the overall ecosystem (biosphere). As a profession in the business of assessment and solving problems, evaluation needs to support the essential shift to more holistic, systems assessment that considers environmental systems on equal par with human systems, as they are interdependent in the larger Earth system.
  3. There is no one recipe for climate change action, but rather a multiplicity of possibilities that will emerge and evolve in our complex systems over time. Global warming is an issue that critically intersects with many other pressing challenges, disciplines, networks, methodologies. Hence, there is no magic bullet or solution for how evaluators can engage, and actions will occur at many levels within the global system and change over time. As such, evaluators should be weary of methodological or semantical polemic that can stall the urgent action these times demand, and instead focus on synergies and collective actions (see below).
  4. Evaluation action will likely be more transformative if it is open and collective. As with any wicked problem, the climate crisis is very much affected by politics and economics; i.e. industry investment and social behavior related to supply (i.e. fossil fuels) and demand (i.e. consumption) that influence policy development and enforcement. As such, the field of evaluation will likely have more leverage if initiatives are not diluted within the field, but interlinked and mutually supportive. Climate change has the potential to rally evaluators around a common purpose. It is inevitable in the complex evaluand, there will be multiple networks, nodes and works teams on such a cross-cutting issue, but the more we can complement rather than duplicate or compete, the better.
  5. Evaluation action should not reinvent the wheel, but instead recycle it. We need to capitalize on existing knowledge and efforts in environmental conservation, economics and human rights. This includes foremost traditional and indigenous knowledge systems and worldviews, as well as new, more sustainable paradigms such as circular economics. It also entails that evaluations interact with and learn from other disciplines, rather than insular navel-gazing limited to our own field. Such interdisciplinary, cross-linkages holds better promise for meaningful systems change by engaging more thought leaders from throughout the systems.

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