Given that reliable calculations of risk and uncertainty are so central to the issue of climate change, I am struck by the diverse assessments of incertitude that climatologists, environmentalists, and climate activists are prepared to espouse under the broad aegis of climate alarmism. Firstly, we have the likes of Ben Santer. Here is someone who is comfortable with the idea of ‘gold standard’, 5-sigma confirmation of the AGW hypothesis, notwithstanding the absence of a well-defined and understood null hypothesis upon which to base the statistical calculation. Then there are those who would not sign up to such hype but still talk confidently about risk levels (and even Risk Ratios), notwithstanding the presence of uncertainties that preclude objective calculations of probabilities. And then you have those who are fully aware of the nature and ubiquity of the uncertainties and are therefore suitably cautious regarding the veracity of climate model projections (and get dismissed as fact mongers for their pains). Yet even amongst the most circumspect of advocates, one will still find a commitment to a raft of hideous looking risk mitigations, courtesy of the precautionary principle. So, no wonder there are sceptics; it doesn’t engender confidence when such wide-ranging positions are used to justify the same levels of political commitment.
Confidence is further eroded when one notices that those who declare their understandable concerns for the climate will, nevertheless, often betray a highly tenuous grasp of risk and uncertainty’s conceptual framework. It wouldn’t be so bad if these individuals demonstrated a modicum of humility but, so often, they don’t. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that such individuals have very little respect for the subtleties and philosophical difficulties surrounding uncertainty, but are more than willing to proclaim upon it when it suits their purpose.
Take, for example, Dr Ken Rice of ATTP fame. Not so long ago I attempted to argue on his own website that there may be a common ground to be found between sceptics and alarmists by adopting the techniques of Robust Decision-making. As a result of those efforts, however, I can now appreciate just how challenging it can be to have a meaningful debate on the difficulties of making risk-based decisions under uncertainty, when one party combines a lack of basic understanding of the subject-matter with a decidedly high-handed manner.
Firstly, the world and its dog thinks that climate change is a wicked problem, but apparently such a judgment is not for those who possess the genius normally reserved for the dog’s bollocks. Dr Rice, alone, can see the simplicity at the heart of the issue – just drive the emissions down to zero and all our problems are solved. Alas, it is precisely because this would be a simplistic solution (creating as many difficulties as it solves) that the problem is understood to be wicked. But, of course, what could someone such as myself, a former risk management professional of some 20 years plus,1 possibly teach Ken Rice about coupled risk? Or, indeed, what could I possibly say regarding the following nugget taken from the top drawer of Ken’s chest of counterfactuals?
“Also, risk assessments are typically not based on median estimates; they’re typically based on avoiding extreme outcomes.”
I tried to point out to Dr Rice the fundamental gaffe made here2 but, according to him, who am I, a mere CliScep blogger, to contradict the ultimate polymath? How can I be taken seriously as an expert on anything if I knock around with people who have the temerity to challenge the very concept of expertise? Besides, if all else fails, it seems that Ken can always call upon his winged monkeys to lecture me upon the subject of exponentially increasing loss functions, blissfully unconcerned that once uncertainty has rendered the objective calculation of probability impossible, the loss function will no longer provide an objective means of determining the risk profile.3 Moreover, Ken shouldn’t need a humble CliScep ignoramus to point out that such loss functions cannot be presumed to apply ‘typically’ to risk assessment.4
I know the guys at ATTP see themselves as superheroes, but Avengers Assembled they are not.5 So, the problem is this: Discussing risk and uncertainty with Ken (or, indeed, any of his consort) would be an abuse of my keyboard unless all parties had at least a basic understanding of the subject-matter and the grace to accept that people with opposing views will often speak with expert authority. Dr Rice appears to believe that it is in the nature of the internet that any old nut-job can pop up claiming expertise, and the best one can do is to dispatch the pretender with mocking insults ringing in their ears. The truth is that the real peril lies in the possibility that one might stray into the territory of an experienced professional who can expose you for the bull-shitter that you are. I have no qualms about Dr Rice expressing his views on this website, but it will be a cold day in hell when I next solicit Dr Rice’s opinions on risk and uncertainty management within the climate change context – or any context, for that matter.
Ken Rice is not alone; I happen to have concentrated upon him here simply because he was the cause of my most recent frustrations. When trying to persuade the ‘climate concerned’ that scepticism legitimately arises from an appreciation of uncertainties, it is very hard to get them to take such scepticism seriously – we are lightly dismissed as merchants of doubt, before being reassured that uncertainty is not our friend. However, I have worked for many years in a variety of professional roles in which it was commonplace to encounter individuals who presumed themselves to have an intuitive grasp of the concepts of risk and uncertainty, little appreciating that such intuition was rarely to be relied upon. Sometimes these individuals would surround themselves with fancy calculations, providing a veneer of scientific authenticity to what were essentially naïve conceptions of uncertainty. But no amount of fault tree analysis, MTBF calculations, Bayesian inferencing, confidence interval calculation, Monte Carlo Simulation, or whatever else, can atone for the absence of an understanding of just what uncertainty is and how it influences our perceptions of risk.
Climate scientists who make confident proclamations regarding the state of understanding within their field should be asking themselves whether they are truly justified in making such claims or just confident idiots. And those who choose to deride anyone who does not share the climatologists’ supposedly insightful confidence would do well to understand that you don’t actually need to be a climatologist to have a theoretical and practical grasp of the subject that lies at the heart of the climate debate, namely the relationship existing between risk and uncertainty. I look forward to the day when climatologists and their willing supporters wake up to the fact that they are not the experts on this central issue.
 The bulk of my career was spent undertaking a variety of corporate governance and consultancy roles at senior management and board level. In these capacities I variously specialised in software quality assurance, corporate and project risk management, safety-critical systems engineering, IT security risk management, corporate environmental management and occupational health and safety. The undertaking of all of these duties required a sound appreciation of the concepts of risk and uncertainty and a technical grounding in their assessment and evaluation.
 Typical risk evaluations (not assessments) are based upon whether the risks exceed a defined threshold for acceptability, together with a determination of priorities for mitigation. Since risk is a function of impact and probability, the threshold may be exceeded by a number of impact/probability combinations, including those featuring median impacts. High impact combined with low probability may engage the imagination but this is often the scenario in which lack of empirical data renders reliable calculation of risk impracticable, whereby ‘typical’ risk assessment no longer applies. In the absence of reliable risk assessment, risk evaluation becomes problematic. This is where the precautionary principle comes in.
 The importance of this point would require an understanding of the distinction between risk aversion and uncertainty aversion – alas, a distinction that I fear may be too subtle for Ken and his canting cronies to appreciate.
 ‘Typically’ was Dr Rice’s word, not mine.
 Unless you count delusions of adulthood as a superpower. Impugning someone’s sincerity at every opportunity may be good fun, but what it has to do with a mature debate is anyone’s guess.