New research hub focuses U of A expertise on how climate change affects health

First interdisciplinary group of its kind in Canada will create more opportunities for collaborative research, learning and advocacy.


Public health researcher Sherilee Harper heads up the new interdisciplinary Climate Change and Health Hub, which brings together more than 30 experts from across the U of A’s three colleges. (Photo: School of Public Health)

The University of Alberta has launched a new research hub to investigate, explain and help mitigate the impact of climate change on human health.

The interdisciplinary Climate Change and Health Hub is the first of its kind in Canada, pulling together more than 30 researchers from across faculties in the health sciences, natural and applied sciences, and social sciences and humanities.

“When people think about climate change, they think of it as an environmental issue but not always as a health issue,” says the new network’s leader, Sherilee Harper, professor in the U of A’s School of Public Health and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health.

“It’s about understanding how climate change impacts our health now in complex, intricate and maybe surprising ways we might not have thought of,” says Harper, who last year was elected as a vice-chair of Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the only Canadian representative on the 34-member IPCC Bureau.

The World Health Organization reports that climate change is “directly contributing to humanitarian emergencies from heat waves, wildfires, floods, tropical storms and hurricanes and they are increasing in scale, frequency and intensity.”

The WHO also notes that regions with weak health infrastructure — mostly in developing countries — will be the most vulnerable to such disasters. And IPCC estimates that climate change has already affected the health of millions of people around the world.

The new hub, based in the College of Health Sciences, aims to make the intersection of climate change and health an educational priority at the U of A, offering students learning and research opportunities in addition to fostering collaboration among researchers, other universities, practitioners and policy-makers across sectors.

It will also bolster evidence-informed advocacy, says Harper, communicating findings and adaptation strategies more broadly to the public. Studies in the United States have shown that the best way to inspire people to take action on climate change is through a health lens.

After engaging with more than 30 researchers on campus working on climate change research, “we were amazed at how enthusiastic and excited people were to engage on this topic,” says Harper.

Most people in Canada agree that climate change is real, but not necessarily an immediate concern, she adds. The new hub aims to demonstrate how climate change negatively affects our health in the here and now so we can best adapt.

“Think about last summer in Alberta and elsewhere, how we had to stay inside because of the air quality. We know breathing in that smoky air is really unhealthy — comparable to smoking.”

Processing climate change can also have serious mental health consequences, resulting in what some now call “eco-anxiety” or “eco-grief” as people come to terms with its devastation around the world.

Part of the hub’s mandate will be to “advocate for bold climate change action from local to global scales,” says Harper, while constantly measuring the efficacy of research and action towards “meaningful change.”

It will also keep an eye on how climate change is likely to affect our health in the coming years.

“One of our most important priorities is figuring out what we can do about it. What actually protects people’s health in this context? We know we’re going to continue to have heat waves and forest fires, so how can we better respond?”

As a vice-chair at the IPCC, Harper says she often hears that panel authors are “just too alarmist … but the truth is we’re actually too conservative. One of our main findings was that change is happening faster than we had previously predicted.”

She stresses that many of the solutions to preventing climate-induced health problems fall outside of the health sector.

“That’s why we need to work together across disciplines, sectors and all levels of government to actually respond to these health impacts.”

She says the hub hopes to hold public events and other outreach activities to encourage discussion on issues such as pollution, food and water security, urban planning and rising heat, and access to green space — “all things that fall outside of the health sector but are really important in terms of protecting and promoting human health.”

The Climate Change and Health Hub formally launched on March 26 at a hybrid event online and in person at Lister Hall, with a panel discussion including Canada’s chief public health officer Theresa Tam joining virtually.