Sue Wheat talks to world-renowned climate change campaigner – and violinist – Aubrey Meyer
Shifting career in your 40s is hard enough, but changing from professional violinist to climate campaigner is impressive. So impressive in fact, that Walthamstow resident Aubrey Meyer was put forward for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, after 20 years at the hard edge of climate campaigning and being described by New Statesman as “one of the ten people in the world most likely to change it”.
A glance at his life story on Wikipedia reveals that if ever there was a man with a mission, Aubrey Meyer is him.
His story would make a captivating film. “I was living an exciting life as a professional violist,” he tells me. “Often travelling the world playing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and composing for Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. One day in 1989 I fetched my four-year-old daughter from nursery to find they’d decorated the walls not with cute animals but dying forests – the children were traumatised!”
One of the first famous eco-activists, Chico Mendes in Brazil, had been assassinated after campaigning against the destruction of the Amazon. An eco-minded teacher had obviously taken the news to heart.
“My beautiful four-year-old asked me: ‘Daddy, is the world really going to die?’ It’s the only time I’ve chosen to lie to her.
“That was the start of my new life as a climate campaigner for the next 25 years.”
Aubrey teamed up with a few other environmental thinkers, including political writer Titus Alexander, who lived in Walthamstow at the time, to devise a proposition of how the world could reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to a level that would stop the planet warming. They named their proposal ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (C&C). “It’s not the catchiest of titles, I know,” Aubrey laughs, “but it stuck”.
The pair formed an organisation called the Global Commons Institute, to promote C&C, and it quickly took the world’s climate community by storm. In contrast to expensive scientific climate modelling, it was beautifully simple – a computer tool made on Aubrey’s PC using the facts about how much CO2 the world can absorb, and dividing that by the global population, to work out per capita budgets based on all people being equal.
It became known as ‘equity and survival’. The amount a rich country would have to ‘contract’ CO2 could be statistically determined against a timeline. It also allowed developing countries to increase consumption, until the points converged.
“It wasn’t telling anyone what to do, it was trying to help everyone know what had to be done,” Aubrey explains. The model was flexible, allowing rich energy-hungry countries to negotiate higher amounts by trading with developing countries.
Over the next decade, C&C became a runaway success. A colourful computer graphic Aubrey had devised showing every country in the world’s emissions became iconic – heralded as a ‘beautiful’ solution by politicians, scientists and environmentalists. After C&C was widely accepted by India, China, African nations, and many more countries, it was written into the UK Climate Act in 2008.
There were detractors, but largely on the detail. There was and still is massive in-fighting between countries and scientists about the technicalities of the precise degrees of what is happening to the atmosphere.
So here was the solution to climate change on a plate, yet the world failed – and is still failing – to act. Why? “Our civilisation is based on the use of energy, and governments think accepting this would take it away from them.
“But it’s like driving a car at 80mph only to realise too late that you’re driving towards the edge of a cliff.”
The recent UN climate summit in Paris made progress, he agrees, but not enough commitment. “I call it the salami-style bureaucratic non-solution,” he says.
“Governments slice however much they want off the salami and every five years they look again to decide how much to slice off next, regardless of how much of the carbon salami is left. It’s as good as praying.”
Despite the seriousness of the topic, Aubrey is a charismatic man, laughing as he talks. He clearly enjoys life, science, nature, family and music. But for many years Walthamstow was merely a base from which to travel and campaign. Now Aubrey has decided, aged 69, to connect more to where he lives.
“I’ve always thought; how does this massive issue of climate change affect where you live your life? Now I’m finally beginning to make the connections.”
His wife Lynda, a textile artist, is part of the E17 Art Trail, which has revealed the artistic side of Walthamstow. Gradually Aubrey is making environmental and community links. He has realised local struggles often closely mimic global struggles, one of which can be seen with Mini Holland, the local sustainable transport scheme that has divided the community.
“Some people argue against road closures not just for their own convenience, but citing open access is ‘public interest’. There’s already a health crisis because of air pollution in this borough and arguing this way is worse than denial because it’s not saying there’s not a problem, it’s saying there isn’t a solution.
“If we can demonstrate Mini Holland as a beneficial example of consent, what a great success for the world to match!”
Squabbling over Mini Holland, he says, is identical to the squabbling he has experienced over 25 years watching the UN get almost nowhere on climate change. It misses the big picture.
“Overall, we simply have to stabilise the atmosphere and quickly by reducing emissions. The climate system isn’t interested in our arguments.”
Aubrey’s hope is that his work will help people doing active environmental projects in the borough. “As we build stronger, more resilient communities through things such as the Transition movement, amazing projects such as OrganicLea, the Hornbeam Centre, and Waltham Forest Divest, will all be strengthened by these local answers to global questions.”
Although climate campaigning will clearly forever be in his blood, increasingly Aubrey is turning back to music, both as a way to enjoy his life, but also as a way to communicate and reach out to people. We should be proud of this Walthamstow father, musician and campaigner – whatever the uptake of C&C by global powers.
Play on, Aubrey Meyer, you deserve it.
For more information on Aubrey Meyer’s Contraction and Convergence theory: