Does statistics trump physics?

My dissertation was a critique and reconstruction of William Nordhaus’ DICE model for climate-economy policy. I discovered a lot of issues, for example that having a carbon cycle that didn’t conserve carbon led to a low bias in CO2 projections, especially in high-emissions scenarios.

There was one sector I didn’t critique: the climate itself. That’s because Nordhaus used an established model, from climatologists Schneider & Thompson (1981). It turns out that I missed something important: Nordhaus reestimated the parameters of the model from time series temperature and forcing data.

Nordhaus’ estimation focused on a parameter representing the thermal inertia of the atmosphere/surface ocean system. The resulting value was about 3x higher than Schneider & Thompson’s physically-based parameter choice. That delays the effects of GHG emissions by about 15 years. Since the interest rate in the model is about 5%, that lag substantially diminishes the social cost of carbon and the incentive for mitigation.

DICE Climate Sector
The climate subsystem of the DICE model, implemented in Vensim

So … should an economist’s measurement of a property of the climate, from statistical methods, overrule a climatologist’s parameter choice, based on physics and direct observations of structure at other scales?

I think the answer could be yes, IF the statistics are strong and reconcilable with physics or the physics is weak and irreconcilable with observations. So, was that the case?

Continue reading “Does statistics trump physics?”


This is a replication of William Nordhaus’ original DICE model, as described in Managing the Global Commons and a 1992 Science article and Cowles Foundation working paper that preceded it.

There are many good things about this model, but also some bad. If you are thinking of using it as a platform for expansion, read my dissertation first.

Units balance.

I provide several versions:

  1. Model with simple heuristics replacing the time-vector decisions in the original; runs in Vensim PLE
  2. Full model, with decisions implemented as vectors of points over time; requires Vensim Pro or DSS
  3. Same as #2, but with VECTOR LOOKUP replaced with VECTOR ELM MAP; supports earlier versions of Pro or DSS
    • DICE-vec-6-elm.mdl (you’ll also want a copy of DICE-vec-6.vpm above, so that you can extract the supporting optimization control files)

Note that there may be minor variances from the published versions, e.g. that transversality coefficients for the state variables (i.e. terminal values of the states for optimization) are not included. The optimizations use fewer time decision points than the original GAMS equivalents. These do not have any significant effect on the outcome.