Al Gore: Supercomputers can reverse climate change
- 20 November, 2009 09:41
Supercomputing technology, according to Al Gore, will help the human race reverse climate change, both by aiding the expansion of renewable energy use and by creating models that help people understand the severity of global warming.
Speaking Thursday morning at the SC09 supercomputing conference in Portland, Ore., the former vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner told researchers that their expertise can help convince the public and politicians that action is needed to reduce carbon emissions.
"Supercomputing has given us the most powerful tool in the history of civilization," Gore said. "It has become a third basic form of knowledge creation, alongside inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning. Computational science, in some ways a blend of the first two, allows us to vastly extend our ability to understand phenomena and complex realities, and investigate new complex realities that would never be possible except for the ability conferred upon us by supercomputing."
Because of the way humans evolved, we are conditioned to react to immediate threats, such as animal predators or other humans who are warlike, Gore said. As a result, we rarely experience a visceral reaction to challenges like global warming in which cause and effect are separated by many years. Polls show that people are concerned about global warming, but do not rank the problem as highly as most other threats, Gore said.
Climate modeling aided by supercomputing, however, can "make impossibly large phenomena small enough to see, and impossibly small phenomena large enough for us humans to see," and thus induce the type of visceral reactions that spur political change, Gore said.
"That has profound implications for how we approach the interface between this incredibly powerful tool you are continuing to develop, and the political decisions that have to be made based on computational science," Gore said. "One of the remaining challenges is how we as human beings individually, and for my purposes collectively in democracy and political systems relate as human beings to the incredibly powerful tool of supercomputing."
Supercomputing will also play a major role in creating energy systems that use renewable sources of power, he said. Wind, solar energy and geothermal energy can replace oil, Gore said, but there are numerous challenges. The energy grid itself is obsolete, and responsible for billions of dollars of losses each year due to unplanned outages, Gore said.
A new "super grid" will be needed to reach remote regions that are ideal for harvesting wind and solar energy, and then deliver power to urban areas, Gore said.
"We have to have a grid that reaches them and we have to infuse that grid with intelligence, in transmission, distribution and storage assets distributed throughout the grid," he said. "The best wind areas are not even being used because that network does not extend to them. Integrating those intermittent sources [of energy such as wind and solar] into a new super grid is a job for supercomputing, and some of you have made great advances already in that field."
Gore's appearance in Portland, which also included a speech to a general audience Wednesday night, was greeted by protests and some vandalism. At the SC09 conference, media members were told they were not allowed to view Gore's speech in person, although some did make it into the room where he was speaking and the rest were allowed to watch him on live video feeds. Gore spoke to the supercomputing audience for an hour and 20 minutes, noting that he attended the very first supercomputing conference in 1988, and that he was scheduled to speak at the 1997 conference until vice presidential duties called him away.
"I'm very grateful it only took you 12 more years to invite me back," Gore joked.
Much of Gore's speech seemed tailored to a general audience, but he did spend a good amount of time discussing supercomputing despite admitting that "I'm the person in the room who knows the least about it."
"One of the pieces of legislation that I look back on with the most pride and satisfaction was the establishment of the supercomputing centers and the information superhighway, and the national research and education network," Gore said. "In a very real way, supercomputers drove the evolution of the Internet because the task of connecting the large machines in order to make it possible for teams to work together without being physically present in the same building was really what led to the higher bandwidth connections that then modeled the incredible value of having high speed data transfer networks. What your community's work did decades ago really has been responsible for the revolutionary transformation of the world's information infrastructure."
Gore compared climate science with Moore's Law, which describes the long term trend in which the number of transistors that can be placed on a circuit doubles about every two years.
Now, there are nearly 1 billion transistors for every man, woman and child on the planet, Gore said. But Moore’s Law is not really a law of a nature as much as it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is continually successful because of the research dollars and time devoted to chip research, Gore said. If sufficient funding and research is devoted to solving climate problems, a similar law could be applied to photovoltaic energy and other renewable sources of power, he said.
"Moore's Law is not a law of physics, as you well know," Gore said. "It is a law of self fulfilling expectations. If we make a choice to switch the source of energy powering our civilization, then that perception of a vast, fast growing market will once again drive a sharp cost reduction curve for technologies like photovoltaic energy. Again, a law of self fulfilling expectations. It seems like a simple choice to me, although it's not simple to execute. We are now totally reliant on dirty, polluting, expensive, vulnerable, insecure carbon-based fuels and we have an opportunity to make a generational, one-off investment to transform our energy system to new sources that rely on fuel that's free forever."