Al Gore entertains the supercomputer troops

Seeks political scientists

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SC09 Former vice president and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore did his self-deprecating politician and climate change champion routine as a keynote for the HPC (high performance computing) faithful at the SC09 trade show in Portland, Oregon, this morning and did his best to get the HPC community fired up about the job they need to do to help normal people (as well as politicians) see and understand that we need to address climate change by changing our energy, transportation, water, and agriculture systems.

"It is fun for me to be here. I am Al Gore and I used to be the next president of the United States of America," Gore said as he stepped onto the stage, to the usual laughter he gets from that line. "I don't think that's funny," he countered with mock anger, as he usually does with that opening line. "I am a recovering politician, on step nine."

Al Gore

"It seems like a very long time ago now since I was in the House and the Senate, working on legislation related to supercomputing," Gore said. He reminded everyone that he was at the first SC event in 1988, when he was a senator from Tennessee - home to the "Jaguar" 1.76 petaflops Opteron-Linux super that now ranks number one in the world - and had just left the House Science Committee that had funded much of national supercomputing labs and the high-speed Internet links between them.

Gore wandered all over the place in discussing sustainability and the climate issues - you can watch An Inconvenient Truth and get more data than he gave out today. But he kept returning to the theme that it is up to the supercomputing scientists of the world to bridge the gap between the understanding of the issues of climate change that scientists have and the very tough infrastructure changes we need to make as citizens, as expressed through politics.

Part of the problem, he said, is that humans are hard-wired to react in a very visceral way to certain kinds of threats - claws, teeth, humans with clubs. But global warming and climate change do not seem as immediate and therefore do not engage the systems in our brains that make us solve a problem and make long-term commitments (rather than take short-term reactions and then fall back into a trance).

Famous speakers are paid to tune their patter to the audience at hand and Gore did just that. It was up to HPC experts to make global warming real to people, as well as do the modeling for climate change and for the infrastructure systems that we need to adapt do address climate change, he said.

Gore reminded everyone that the planet had coped with one other problem in the 1980s - the depletion of the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere through the action of chloroflurocarbons (CFCs), and that within a year of discovering the problem, there was a worldwide treaty curbing the use of these materials.

Several years later, the laws were tightened, effectively outlawing them, but even before that happened, a circuit board manufacturer had committed to eliminating CFCs before talking to its engineers, Gore recounted. He said this was a crisis for the company, and that its engineers banged their heads against the wall, saying it was impossible to clean the boards without CFCs. Then one day, an engineer asked a different question: why were the boards getting dirty in the first place? After that Eureka! moment, the company redesigned its manufacturing process to be clean - and then shared it with the entire industry.

"We are naturally prone to think about single solutions - silver bullets," Gore said. "We have to think about whole system redesigns, and we have to do it in energy, in transportation, and in all areas and endeavors."

Low bit rate humans

But the problem always comes back to people, not the supercomputer models for climate or other systems that some of us build. "Supercomputing is key, a very important tool. It has become a third basic form of reasoning, alongside inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning, and is in a sense the combination of the two."

But, the problem is that the human brain has a very low bit rate even if it has a very high resolution. "That has profound implications for how we interface with the incredibly powerful tools that you continue to create," Gore said to the HPC crowd.

"We face what is properly understood as a planetary emergency," Gore said, admitting that "it sounds shrill and it sounds like it couldn't possibly be true."

Gore was not above poking a little fun at the scientific community even as he encouraged them to to get involved politically.

"I sometimes have scientists say to me that they are working on a technology to scavenge CO2 from the atmosphere. We already have that technology - it's called a tree. And if you take that technology to scale, you call it a forest."

But in the end, Gore issued a clarion call to the scientific community . "We need your voices," he said with the passion of a southern preacher. "We are now at a point where it is important to change our windows and our lightbulbs, but it is a hell of a lot more important to change our laws and our policies. Too much is at stake." ®

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