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Alberta scientists band together to shift climate change focus to health impacts

A cyclist makes their way along a roadway in a lane marked for bicycles, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2022 in Ottawa. Bodies and minds are just as affected by climate change as sea ice and forests, says University of Alberta scientist Sherilee Harper. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld. ajw

Bodies and minds are just as affected by climate change as sea ice and forests, says University of Alberta scientist Sherilee Harper.

“Climate change impacts everything we care about,” she said. “It’s not just an environmental issue.”

That’s why Harper, along with 30 or so colleagues from disciplines as wide-ranging as economics and epidemiology, have banded together into what she calls Canada’s first university hub to shift the view of climate change from an environmental problem to a threat to human health.

“The hub is about helping people see that every climate change decision is a health decision,” said Harper, a professor in the School of Public Health and a vice-chair on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific body on the issue.

“Every climate change research project has health implications.”

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Take bike lanes, for example.

City planners look at them as a way to decrease tailpipe emissions from cars. But riding a bike also improves health.

“There’s a lot of power in framing climate change as a health issue,” Harper said. “There’s research showing that if you frame (it) as a health problem, it inspires more action than if you frame it as an environment problem or economic issue.”

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Canada is warming at twice the pace of the global average and abundant research already demonstrates that increasing temperatures are increasing health problems.

A 2022 report from the Public Health Agency of Canada called climate change “the single biggest health threat facing humanity and the livability of the planet.”

Wildfire smoke, which last summer gave Canada some of the worst air quality on the globe, damages lung function, especially in children. Illnesses such as Lyme disease and West Nile are spreading as the parasites that carry them take advantage of new habitats. Diarrhea is becoming more common as warming waters host more bacteria.

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There are mental health impacts as well, from the acute stress suffered by those forced to flee by flames to the pervasive sense of loss and grief as people mourn a familiar environment that has changed into something else. Often, the physical and mental effects occur at the same time, compounding each other.

And Harper’s own experience after last year’s wildfires will sound familiar to many.

“I have two young kids. We were stuck inside all summer. That was really hard.”

The threats are international.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year from undernutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.

The Climate Change and Health Hub will be officially announced on Tuesday at an event featuring Canada’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Theresa Tam. For now, it will be mostly a network of scientists, First Nations knowledge keepers and students who agree that such interdisciplinary work is needed and who plan to share ideas and research.

Such hubs already exist in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, Harper said.

She said Alberta’s hub will be more than just a talk-shop for boffins. It will also take on public outreach and advocacy.

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“We think in this era of mis- and disinformation that having a place that can mobilize evidence-informed advocacy is really important. It’s providing evidence so that politicians can make decisions based on that evidence.”

The hub will plug a big gap in Canada’s climate change research community, Harper says.

“Research on the topic is happening but it’s not connected and researchers are not connected with each other. Climate change is by definition a very interdisciplinary topic.”

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