Setting the agenda for climate science

Impact on cities, effectiveness of adaptation and mitigation efforts, stock-taking on Paris Agreement targets are all possible topics for next round of IPCC reports, says U of A expert representing Canada.


U of A climate and health researcher Sherilee Harper is representing Canada on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change bureau as it plans its next round of scientific reports, providing the basis for future climate action. (Photo: School of Public Health)

As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gets ready to set its scientific agenda for the next three to eight years, University of Alberta climate and health scientist Sherilee Harper will be at the table to help guide those decisions.

Scientists and government representatives from 195 countries are meeting this week in Istanbul, Turkey, to determine the topics for reports in the IPCC’s seventh assessment cycle. A lot has changed since the panel issued its first assessment report in 1990, projecting the rate and impact of climate change and outlining the need for global co-operation. The sixth assessment cycle ended in July 2023 and its reports were used to inform discussions at UN conferences on climate change, including negotiations at COP28, held in Dubai last fall.

“This is the first time that we will be going through an assessment cycle where the impacts of climate change are really unfolding as we do the science, so the urgency of being able to deliver timely reports is really important,” says Harper, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health and Canada’s only representative on the 34-member IPCC bureau.

Harper says that although there is no longer scientific debate about the human-made causes of climate change and increasingly less doubt the world will miss its goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, there are still many burning climate science questions to be answered.

“The science that shows climate change is real and it’s happening, that’s settled. But what’s not settled is what we do about it. That’s the type of information that governments want timely access to,” explains Harper, a professor in the U of A’s School of Public Health and principal investigator with the Climate Change & Global Health Research Group

It will be up to the member countries to discuss a menu of potential topics and report cycles that have been proposed by the bureau of IPCC scientists, and decide what reports will be written and when. The panel is mandated to produce policy-relevant science, not policy prescriptions, Harper notes, although some scientists have recently expressed frustration with that role.

It’s already been agreed that one major report will focus on cities, because they are where many of the impacts from climate-linked extreme events are felt. The stage was set for the cities report, expected by 2027, at the IPCC Cities and Climate Change Scientific Conference in 2018 when scientists from around the world met in Edmonton to brainstorm.

Other proposed topics for new reports include the science behind tracking progress on how well countries are meeting their Paris Agreement goals in preparation for the United Nations’ Global Stocktake, set for 2028; looking for the best ways to reduce climate-caused loss and damage; and understanding how climate change will continue to affect human migration.

Rather than taking years to produce comprehensive books on the chosen topics, Harper expects to see new methods introduced to more quickly share the scientific findings and make them more accessible, such as using AI tools to search and use IPCC findings.

Even though Harper is a public health researcher, she is vice-chair of Working Group 1, which is focused on physical science, while Working Group 2 focuses on impacts and Working Group 3 on mitigation. She says recent group elections reflect an effort to “shuffle the deck” and break down silos by including interdisciplinary researchers in each group.

“Decision-makers aren’t making decisions based on Working Group 1 versus 2 versus 3,” she points out. “They’re taking all this information and making very complex decisions by bringing all the information together.”

No matter which topics are chosen, the goal is to produce reports that are useful for governments.

“There’s often this mismatch between the research that’s conducted and the research that’s needed by decision-makers. So IPCC tries to bridge this gap by starting with the decision-makers and asking, ‘What information are you going to need in the next three to eight years on climate change and how can IPCC scientists deliver that to you?’” 

Another proposed topic area for new research is the impacts of climate change on health, Harper’s field of expertise.

“Increasingly, people are personally experiencing health impacts from heat waves, wildfires, flooding and storms,” says Harper, who is a member of the Women and Children’s Health Research Institute. “Governments are feeling that stress not only in terms of the extra pressure it puts on health-care systems, but also from voters.”

She says that’s already happening in Canada, thanks to extreme weather events such as the record-breaking wildfires of 2023.

“I have two young kids at home who were cooped up in the house all summer because of the air quality,” she says. “People couldn’t take their pets outside, events were cancelled — not to mention all the people who were evacuated from their homes.”

Harper says learning about international scientific priorities through her role with the IPCC will influence her own research, too. One of her current projects is led by Inuit women in Nunavut, looking at how food sovereignty and mental wellness are being shaped by climate-related changes in the environment. Another is assessing how climate change is harming Canadians’ mental health.

“I’m a community-based researcher who has always been very interested in what information decision-makers need to make good decisions to be able to work towards climate resiliency, whether that’s on a local, national or international level.”