Researcher brings local voices, and experiences into international climate change policy

Sherilee Harper’s earned the International Science Council's Early Career Scientist Award for her work with communities facing health risks

It’s easy to find examples of how climate change is triggering health issues—you only have to look as far as the poor air quality resulting from the increasing number of wildfires. It limits people’s ability to work or be active outside, especially those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.

But those poor health outcomes are amplified for vulnerable populations. 

“Climate change impacts the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and all those things impact our health,” says Sherilee Harper, an associate professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health. “And evidence makes it clear that the impacts on health are not distributed within populations evenly. Climate change has different impacts on different populations at different times.”

Harper’s research team, the Climate Change & Global Health Research Group, is working alongside and in partnership with Indigenous communities in Canada’s Arctic, Uganda and Peru to document and better manage the health effects of climate change in those communities.

On Oct. 13, Harper, who is also Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health, was awarded the International Science Council's Early Career Scientist Award (North America). The award is given for exceptional contribution to science and international scientific collaboration by early career researchers. 

Associate professor Sherilee Harper has been recognized for her exceptional contribution to science and international scientific collaboration. (Photo: School of Public Health)

Communities in the Arctic are experiencing rapidly-increasing effects of global warming.  

Harper has been working in partnership with Northern communities since 2006. Thawing permafrost and shifting ice create unsafe ice conditions and disappearing trails for Indigenous Peoples who rely on locally harvested food.

Harper’s award recognizes how their team has advanced community-led approaches, and brought local voices, experiences, and priorities into international decision-making about climate change. This includes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

“For these communities, climate change has already impacted nutrition, but also their mental health and wellness,” says Harper. “When people are out hunting or harvesting food in unsafe conditions, that’s obviously stressful. It’s also stressful for the people at home worrying about their loved ones out on the land and ice in unsafe conditions.”

Harper’s research has also found evidence of a growing problem with water-borne diarrheal diseases in the Arctic. The water quality and quantity has deteriorated with environmental changes, known as Arctic greening and browning. This can create issues for people who access streams and brooks as a source of drinking water while they are out on the land. 

In addition to her research in the Arctic, Harper’s team collaborates with international colleagues on work with Indigenous communities in Uganda (the Batwa people) and the Peruvian Amazon (the Shipibo and Shawi peoples). 

“You have three very different regions, with very different climates, different governance, different languages, different colonial histories in terms of the Indigenous Peoples there,” says Harper. “But what has been clear through our collaborative research with these three regions is that the way climate change is impacting health is very similar in all three regions.”

In all three areas, community members listed the most pressing climate-related health impacts as food security, nutrition and water-borne diarrheal diseases. In Uganda and Peru, the rising rates of vector-borne diseases like malaria were also a major concern.

“Throughout our collaboration, we found that even though these are very different places, the pathways through which climate change impacts health are the same – health equity, climate justice, the way colonization has impacted these communities, the way Indigenous Peoples are treated. These are the key things that increase vulnerability to climate change impacts on health.”

Sherilee Harper is an associate professor in the U of A’s School of Public Health and Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Health. Harper also represents Canada on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an advisory group that makes recommendations on the impact of climate change on many sectors, including health, the economy, infrastructure and migration.