For the Biden team, a “wicked” aerospace problem
By Ben Iannotta|January 2021
Assuming covid-19 is tamed and a giant asteroid or comet isn’t spotted heading our way in 2021, climate change will resume its place as the most pressing science and technology issue facing humanity. On this topic, the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden might soon experience the power of inertia, as in the “resistance of any object to any change in its velocity,” as Wikipedia defines it.
The Democratic Party platform has inertia in the forward direction on climate change, calling for achieving “net-zero” carbon emissions no later than 2050 for the economy overall, in part by creating a “clean, 21st-century transportation system,” which presumably would include cleaner air transportation. This forward inertia is not matched by the U.S. government, which became practically motionless on the issue under the Trump administration.
Restoring that motion won’t be easy. In the aerospace sector, doing so could mean stretching out the timetables for accomplishing other goals that many reasonable people applaud, including clearing the way for supersonic air travel, catching up with rivals on hypersonics research, and reviving human exploration of the moon.
Taking on climate change here in the United States is what the theorists call a “wicked problem,” meaning one that defies logic and predictable outcomes. If the Biden administration attempts to jar the bureaucracy into motion through small, painless bumps, the climate won’t wait and innovators around the world will continue leaping ahead of the United States. What about retooling the entire federal government to meet the climate challenge? A year ago at the AIAA SciTech Forum, former NASA official Lori Garver pointed to something like that path, calling climate change the “No. 1 global challenge of our time,” and suggesting that the talents of NASA and the nation should be reoriented to it much as they were marshaled to beat Russia to the moon in the 1960s. That makes total sense, but it also sounds like a political nightmare, which is why climate change is such a wicked problem here in the United States. Progress would likely bog down in time-sucking side debates over where to spend the money and how to best reshape the bureaucracy.
So, I don’t know exactly what the solution will be. I suspect, though, that the private sector will be a big part of it. We might discover that relatively small nudges to the government apparatus through new research initiatives, tax changes or enhanced international collaboration will have an outsized effect by unleashing private sector innovators in areas such as fuels, propulsion, carbon capture and more. With luck, we’ll see a whole new class of Elon Musks emerge in the area of clean energy.