Debrief from Cheltenham

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I’m at home, groggy but happy after our Cheltenham Science Festival event yesterday, “Can we trust climate models?”. It was exhausting, fun, exciting, and long…

I’ll write about the content of the event in future posts, but I wanted to jot down my impressions about its atmosphere, which I think was unique for an event of this kind.

I’d been nervous in the morning and early afternoon. My relaxed day of preparation was steadily eroded by things going slightly wrong, such as realising after my laptop battery ran out that I’d left my charger the other side of Bristol after Bright Club. I had a long list of papers I wanted to skim, notes I wanted to make, an introductory talk to write. Taking the train with my friend and colleague Jonty, I was too stressed to speak and had a sense of humour failure when he gently teased me about leaving my adapter somewhere (again, he said, though I can’t think which other time *cough* times he was thinking of…).

Arriving at the Science Festival site I felt more at ease. It’s like home. In the previous two years I’d come as a punter, had huge fun, loved the events and met extremely wonderful people. This was my first year as an event organiser, and as the time approached I became less nervous, in part because I couldn’t do any more preparation. It helped to take some time out for a gentle, fun radio interview by (the extremely wonderful) Timandra Harkness.

The event itself was an hour long, with introductory talks from the panel – myself, “climate agnostic” Jonathan Jones, professor of physics at the University of Oxford, and Claire Craig, science advisor in the UK government – followed by a few questions from chair Mark Lythgoe and many from the audience. The venue holds 2-300, depending on seating arrangements, and was almost sold out. After the main event we continued at the “Talking Point”, a small tent with informal seating, with around 50-70 of the audience. We took questions for, I think, another hour.

I spent more time battling with the chair than the other panel members! Mark repeatedly accused me of waffling and not answering the question. I told him I didn’t like his questions when they were ill-defined or about policy (I don’t make public statements about preferred policy options). Some of the audience questions were also a little heated, on both sides: those worrying about climate change, and those worrying about climate scientists.

Listening to @flimsin in talking point tent, sending a big virtual hug to her as she keeps getting interrupted mid explanation. #stressful -- Amanda Woodman-Hardy (Cabot Institute)

But despite this, the mood of the event was absolutely wonderful throughout. Almost all the “battles” were respectfully teasing, filled with humour. We laughed a lot, which must be a first for a discussion about climate change, scepticism and policy! I put this down to the warm and respectful relationships between the panel members (even though Claire and Jonathan had only just met), to our joyfully provocative chair, and to the audience who quickly created the serious and light atmosphere we hoped for. It was a privilege to have such an interested and supportive audience, such thoughtful, interesting and honest co-members of the panel, and a fun chair who dug into us to make us react and think more deeply about our answers.

At the end of the event, Mark stepped back from his aim of provoking us for theatre and entertainment. He thanked us very sweetly for trying so hard to answer so many questions, and said we were the bravest panel he’d ever seen. And he sent a wonderful tweet afterwards:

Best panel on climate models yet thanks to star cast fab @flimsin articulate @nmrqip wise Claire Craig #cheltscifest brave and entertaining – Mark Lythgoe (chair)

It was an enormous pleasure to put on this event, and I learned a lot. Thank you to the Cabot InstituteBristol Environmental Risk Research Centre (BRISK)ice2sea and my department (School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol) for sponsoring it, thank you to the Centre for Public Engagement for supporting me (including giving me an award! hurrah!), thank you to my panel members and chair for saying yes and working so hard, and thank you to all that came.

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