Tech can fight against climate change

I’m glad the Senate killed the Keystone pipeline. The only thing exploitation of tar sands will do is to increase the severity of climate change.

James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, in his book Storms of My Grandchildren, warned of a "Venus syndrome,” or runaway climate change so extreme that it leaves the planet overheated and dead.  He argued that if the world burns tar sands and tar shale, “I believe the Venus syndrome is a dead certainty.”

That’s Hansen’s warning.  It doesn’t matter whether you believe he is right or wrong. The question is really about the amount of risk we want to pass on to future generations.

Climate change is happening. It will make life miserable for our children, grandchildren and their offspring. But there is little meaningful debate about it in Washington.  The country is locked in a weird paralysis and lethargy on the issue, thanks, in no small part, to the ability of the fossil fuel industry to run a campaign of distraction.

The relentless advertising about how the U.S. can create “one million new jobs” by expanding fossil fuel development skips over the fact that it involves blowing up mountains in West Virginia, digging up tar sands, more offshore drilling, and pumping a lot more carbon into atmosphere. These are the acts of an increasingly desperate civilization unwilling to recognize its resource constraints.

The fossil fuel lobby controls the agenda in Washington. They’ll win on Keystone eventually; this Senate vote Thursday is just about waiting until the election is over. That will be the future unless the country begins to understand the alternatives to Keystone.

These alternatives go beyond wind power or solar energy. It’s about something much more fundamental.

Mankind’s best tool for tackling climate change and developing alternative energy are supercomputers.

Computing power has been growing at a regular, predictable pace. But the next leap, exascale, the construction of supercomputers one thousand times more powerful than anything today, will take new approaches to software development, processors, data storage and problems such as continuous failure on systems comprised of hundreds of thousands of compute cores.

The European Commission, which is funding exascale development in a major way, said the challenges involved in exascale “cannot be met by mere extrapolation, but require radical innovation in many computing technologies.”

Exascale systems will advance science. They will be able to analyze vast data sets and create simulations of much higher resolution, allowing us to peer more closely at our most vexing problems, including climate change.

Investment in the next generation of supercomputers will also enable our businesses to be more competitive, creating potentially thousands of new jobs and even new industries.

The Obama administration is, inexplicably, failing to fund exascale computing.  Instead of coming out with a plan in next year’s budget to spend the $5 billion or more it will likely to take to get there, it offered something in the range of $100 million.  The amount has been characterized as peanuts.

There is no explanation from the administration for this insufficient funding. Building exascale systems is a national priority in China and in European member states, but not in the United States.

The tech industry can deliver an alternative narrative to the one offered by the fossil fuel industry. Keystone is an evolutionary dead end for mankind.  But the science, software and hardware needed to build an exascale system represent the sum of our potential as inventors and discoverers. It also offers us hope against the unthinkable.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

Bing’s AI chatbot came to work for me. I had to fire it.
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