Rolling the Dice in the Corridors of Power: William Nordhaus's Impacts on Climate Change Policy

A new working paper, which examines the legacy of a pioneer in climate change economics, finds that Nordhaus’s major contributions to the field mostly influenced public policy indirectly.



July 29, 2020


Working Paper

Reading time

1 minute


The seminal contributions of William Nordhaus to scholarship on the long-run macroeconomics of global climate change are clear. Much more challenging to identify are the impacts of Nordhaus and his research on public policy in this domain. We examine three conceptually distinct pathways for that influence: his personal participation in the policy world; his research’s direct contribution to the formulation and evaluation of public policy; and his research’s indirect role informing public policy. Many of the themes that emerge in this assessment of the contributions of one of the most important economists to have worked in the domain of climate change analysis apply more broadly to the roles played by other leading economists in this and other policy domains.

Key Findings

  • In the short term, at least, more easily digestible symbols—for example, targets of 2 °C maximum temperature change by 2100 or net zero emissions in 2050—sometimes matter more for public policy than even the best, most rigorous scholarly research.
  • The work of economists such as William Nordhaus can affect policymaking via three distinct pathways: personal participation in the policy world; directly influencing the formulation of public policies; and indirectly informing public policy.
  • The third pathway–indirectly informing public policy—is the most important one through which Nordhaus’s work has had impacts on public policy.
  • Our assessment in this article of the policy impacts of one of the most important economists to have ever worked in the environmental domain prompts us to issue an appeal to our colleagues in the profession for greater moderation overall when making claims about academic research influencing policy developments, whether specifically for climate change or more broadly in the realm of environmental, energy, and natural resource policy.


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