Public health researcher a lead author on global report on climate change

New graduate certificate program in climate change and health will prepare students to find solutions

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Agricultural policy-makers, wastewater treatment engineers, crisis counsellors and allergists all have something in common, although they may not realize it.

Sherilee Harper
Sherilee Harper

Whether it’s planning for food that isn’t as nutritious as it used to be, preventing new waterborne illnesses from infiltrating the water supply, treating traumatized residents returning after an emergency evacuation or helping patients with asthma during wildfire season, all are dealing with the impacts of climate change on human health. And it’s only going to get worse as global warming progresses.

Sherilee Harper aims to arm University of Alberta students with the skills they will need to work in those fields and more through a new graduate certificate in climate change and health, starting in the winter term of 2023, that students can earn while completing their chosen degrees.

Harper knows what they are facing better than most. An expert on the impact of climate change on health in Northern Canada and associate professor in the School of Public Health, Harper is a lead author on some of the world’s most influential scientific reports on climate change, including Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability released on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

“It’s become very clear that climate change has already impacted our health, and the evidence shows that’s going to continue to happen over the course of this century,” said Harper.

“You can’t take just a strictly biomedical health line to it. It’s about society, it’s about culture. It’s about the environment. It’s about ecology and ecosystems,” she said. “Solutions will require interdisciplinarity.”

Most Canadians understand the immediate effects of climate change on health, after witnessing the heat dome that caused an extreme heat wave throughout western North America last summer and watching British Columbia cope with unprecedented flooding caused by an atmospheric river in the fall.

“But it’s not just those extreme events, it’s also slower-onset events like sea level rise, ocean acidification, increased transmission of Lyme disease and West Nile disease, lower protein and iron content of foods,” said Harper, who is Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health.

“These changes are impacting our infrastructure. They’re impacting our culture. They’re impacting our livelihoods,” she said. “And of course, they’re impacting our health.”

The changes – and the adaptations they will force upon us – are outlined in the new IPCC report, as well as the government of Canada’s Health of Canadians in a Changing Climate, released earlier this month, the IPCC’s 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate and its Sixth Assessment Report, all of which Harper helped to write. She also co-led another international scientific report on climate change and health in the Americas, which is due out in this month.

The IPCC reports are used as the scientific basis for negotiations at the annual United Nations climate change conferences known as Conferences of the Parties or COPs, which led to the 2015 Paris agreement to cut global carbon emissions enough to keep the Earth’s warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius. COP27 will be held in Egypt later this year.

“It’s probably the most rigorous scientific process that I’ve been involved in and it takes a huge amount of time,” said Harper. “But I love it because it’s at the policy-science interface, and it’s done really closely with governments to make sure that it’s useful and usable science.”

The reports show that the impacts of climate change on health are not evenly distributed between nations or even within them. Canada’s Arctic is already seeing changes at a faster pace than elsewhere within the country, Harper pointed out, but unequal access to resources such as air conditioning or mental health supports mean that different households within cities are also more vulnerable to events such as heat waves or air pollution. Younger people have experienced more climate-caused emergencies in their lifetimes already than older generations, and they will experience more in the future.

Harper and the other authors of the most recent report want governments to understand what will happen if they don’t meet the targets they’ve set. “If we hit two degrees of warming, the health impacts will be catastrophic, and could very likely overwhelm our health-care system.”

“If we take action now, and we bolster our health system, we bolster our food system, increase social programs, change infrastructure building codes, do those types of things, we can adapt to 1.5 degrees of warming,” said Harper.

It will take flexibility and vision in many fields to help the world adapt, which is why Harper and Ruth Wolfe, associate dean of professional programs in the School of Public Health, pushed to create the new certificate, the first of its kind in Canada.

Students will take core and elective courses, including an overview, a special topics study of current issues and a capstone project to connect climate change and health to their own discipline. They will tap into the strong cluster of climate change and health researchers within the School of Public Health, including Shelby Yamamoto, an expert on air pollution; Patrick Hanington, who is focused on waterborne disease; Simon Otto, who works on antimicrobial resistance and foodborne disease; and Stephanie Montesanti, who works with Indigenous communities.

“We’re welcoming students not just from the School of Public Health but from across campus, anyone who wants to learn about it,” Harper said. “This is a highly marketable skill, and the ability to bring a climate change and health lens will increasingly come into decision-making in people’s jobs on a day-to-day basis.”

Harper said she isn’t immune to the sense of despair some feel when contemplating relentless news about climate change impacts, but she finds the interest of young people to find solutions encouraging.

“I was at COP26 in Glasgow this past fall, and every single day, on my way to the negotiation venue, there were thousands of young people on the streets reminding decision-makers about the importance of taking action on climate change. And every single day I just felt so overwhelmed with hope, because people are really talking about it, and they really care about it.”

| By Gillian Rutherford

Gillian is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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