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Former Vice President Al Gore linked climate change to a rash of environmental catastrophes Thursday, from floods in Pakistan to drought in Texas and rampant algae blooms sucking oxygen from Lake Erie.
The fallout from a warming planet is being felt around the world, Gore said in a speech during the annual meeting of the International Joint Commission, which advises the U.S. and Canadian governments on issues affecting shared waterways. Things will get worse unless people reject a campaign of denial orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry and make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
"We're still acting as if it's perfectly OK to use this thin-shelled atmosphere as an open sewer. It's not OK," Gore said. "We need to listen to the scientists. We need to use the tried and true method of using the best evidence, debating and discussing it, but not pretending that facts are not facts."
Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his campaign to awaken people to the climate change threat, said warmer temperatures could nullify much of the progress made in recent decades to heal the battered Great Lakes.
Increasingly, severe storms made worse by greater volumes of water vapor in the atmosphere are causing wastewater treatment system overflows that dump raw sewage into the lakes, he said. That forces beach closures and promotes growth of algae blooms that create oxygen-deprived zones where fish can't survive.
After largely disappearing as phosphorus discharges into the lakes were reduced decades ago, the algae problem has returned and is worse than ever in some places, primarily on Lake Erie. Smelly clumps of algae are fouling beaches on Lakes Michigan and Huron.
Gore's critics have accused him of making exaggerated claims about climate change and cashing in on his activism through investments in green technology. But leaders of the International Joint Commission said his comments about the Great Lakes were based on findings of scientists in the region.
"He's quoting what the researchers are saying," said Ted Yuzyk, the Canadian co-chairman of an IJC group that plans to release a report next spring on how climate change is affecting the lakes. Researchers have found that heavy storms promote algae growth not only through sewage overflows, but also by washing greater amounts of nutrient-rich soils into the lakes, Yuzyk said.
Lana Pollack, who was appointed by President Barack Obama as the U.S. chairwoman of the commission, said: "There's absolutely no doubt the challenges we face are greater and more confounding because of climate change."
Gore also noted that the annual ice cover on the Great Lakes is shrinking, which promotes greater evaporation and drives down lake levels. Periodic low water has caused millions in losses for cargo shippers, marina operators and other businesses since the late 1990s.
"There is a relationship between continuing progress in the Great Lakes basin and progress in dealing with the climate crisis," he said.
Facing the issue instead of ducking it would boost the economy, Gore said. In the Great Lakes region, governments could create jobs by upgrading sewers and other infrastructure that will be strained by heavier rain and snowfall and promoting wind and solar power would create new opportunities, he said.
"Some people say that it's going to cost a lot of money," he said. "It would cost a heck of a lot of money over time if we didn't do it."
Gore said climate change is a common thread between floods that have driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds in Pakistan and this year's floods in the U.S., as well as a severe drought in Texas and triple-digit temperatures in Moscow.
"The key to the solution for the Great Lakes and for human civilization on Earth is to think clearly about what our choices are and to think boldly and make a moral decision that we're going to do the right thing," he said.