by Lowell Bliss
Remembrance Day 2018 fell on a Sunday. It was the 100th Anniversary of the armistice which ended World War I. On that Sunday morning, Lorenzo, our deacon, solemnly walked to the back of the sanctuary at St. James and St. Brendan. He stood before the roll on the wall and read the names of our parish dead, the local men who had sat in those same pews but who had perished in the Great War and subsequent conflicts. At five o’clock that evening, my father-in-law and I returned to the church. We took our turn in a ceremony that was happening all across Canada: we grabbed the coarse rope that hung below the belfry and we rang out 100 times in a steady rhythm which seemed to matched the cadence of the poem: “Ask. . . not. . . for. . . whom. . . the. . . bell. . . tolls. . . It. . . tolls. . .for. . .thee.”
If 2018 was the 100th anniversary of the armistice, then 2019 is the 100th anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference, talks which would end in the tragic portent known as the Treaty of Versailles. The talks began on January 28 following a jubilant victory parade. The Treaty would be signed six months later with fanfare and foreboding on June 28. If you think about it, Paris has played host for many of history’s diplomatic turning points, but not with a particularly encouraging record. When I was a child, I remember Walter Cronkite reporting about the Paris Peace Talks that were to end the Vietnam War. Interestingly, Ho Chi Minh had been in Paris back in 1919 and had requested to speak to the Supreme Council about decolonizing Indochine. He was denied.
Future historians however will look back and say that, more than the Treaty of Versailles or the Paris Peace Talks, the global negotiations that occurred in the French capital which had the most consequence for the most number of people over the largest portion of the globe for the most number of decades, were the ones that produced the Paris Climate Agreement. “Adopted” in 2015 at the climate summit known as COP 21, the Paris Agreement has been “signed” by 196 states plus the European Union. Of those countries, 183 plus the EU have taken the extra step of ratifying it, as if it had the force of a treaty. The next twelve months will be crucial, as the nations will gather in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2020 for COP 26. They will bring with them their revised Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, country-by-country plans to reduce their share of greenhouse gas emissions. Those NDCs will be matched up to the reductions which the scientists tell us will be necessary to meet the agreed-upon goal: to limit global average warming to no more than 2.0°C—a warming whose effects alone will feel like the loss of Poland in 1939. The Paris Agreement is not simply about GHG emission reductions. In the Paris Agreement, the nations also pledged to mobilize $100 billion per year in adaptation funds to help lesser developed countries as they adjust to a changed climate. The giving would ramp up to that amount until 2020, after which $100 billion per year would be the floor of what the nations contribute. Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres considers 2020 to be a make-or-break year for climate policy: “If we do not change course by 2020,” he claims, “we risk missing the point where we can avoid runaway climate change with disastrous consequences for people and all the natural systems that sustain us.”
Meanwhile back in Paris of 1919, in his more lucid moments, Woodrow Wilson understood that the negotiations of the Peace Conference had one goal and one goal only: to prevent World War II. He spoke of his pet idea, the League of Nations. “The League of Nations,” he told the conference, “will offer security that until now could only be found in military alliances. Once you prepare for war, you get it. So maybe, for once, we prepare for peace.” Understand what Wilson was trying to say: the French president Georges Clémenceau and the British prime minister David Lloyd-George could not conceive of a world where military alliances were not the only way of doing business, not the only means of maintaining security and prosperity. And there were other “hardening of the categories” which would eventually stop Europe’s heart. For example, whereas Wilson seemed to foresee the end of empire, the other victorious powers could not, and so used the Treaty to make some “business-as-usual” adjustments such as creating the demographic monstrosities of Iraq, Palestine, or Japan’s control over Shandong in China. Finally, there is the issue of German reparations, against which Germany’s argument was: “Yes, but you too share blame for starting this war and for the atrocities which were part of it.” Lloyd-George and Clémenceau could not conceive of a world where they alone did not hold the moral high ground. Apparently, the reason the Paris negotiations were delayed until late January is so that Lloyd-George could call an election back in Britain and emerge with a mandate. He promised his constituents that the Germany would be forced to pay for the entire cost of the war, including pensions for war widows, about $300 billion. Economist John Maynard Keynes was in Paris and served a similar role to what the scientists of the IPCC serve for the COPs; he was meant to be a voice of data and of budgets and of economic flows built around hard numbers. Keynes eventually quit when the politicians refused to give up the idea that an economy built on mutual-assured-destruction is a viable future.
It is said of the French president: “History has taught Clémenceau everything he needs to know about war: you make alliances, then you fight other alliances. The League of Nations is for dreamers.” Once you prepare for World War II, you get World War II. “So maybe, for once,” Wilson suggested, “we prepare for peace.” I could imagine that Secretary-General Guterres might stand before the United Nations and admit that, in this brief period of history known as the fossil fuel bubble, we sought our security and happiness in burning as much coal, oil, and natural gas as possible. For once, let’s prepare for something different: for climate peace and justice.
If COP 26 in Glasgow in 2020 is so important, what does that make the year 2019, the actual anniversary of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919? COP 25 will be held in Santiago, Chile, December 1-14. The only reason that the summit will be held in Chile is that the previously-scheduled host, Brazil, had rescinded their offer immediately upon electing a nationalistic government. I will be co-leading a group of 24 students and participants—Christians from the US, Canada, Argentina, Ghana, Colombia, and Panama—in the first ever Christian Climate Observers Program, CCOP.* I must admit that one of the most profound of my spiritual preparations for COP 25 is when I happened upon the documentary Paris 1919 at my local public library. (I’ve since discovered that it is available on YouTube here). The film is based on the book by Margaret MacMillian, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World. I watched the film once and immediately felt the parallels to what here in 2019 we call “the Paris Process.” I watched it a second time and shuddered at the similar future in store for us should the Paris Agreement repeat the mistakes of The Treaty of Versailles. At some point I asked the question—tongue-in-cheek—“Who forgot to pray for the Paris Peace Conference of 1919?”—when I was brought up short by how limited my own efforts have been to pray for the COPs. But that changes now: we at CCOP will be publishing a newsletter over the next two months—including daily from Santiago. Please consider subscribing here. What is COP 25 in 2019? To me it is that moment in May of 1919, a month before the short trip out to the Palace of Versailles, where it is still not too late to envision a different way of running the world. One day a future historian will write a book entitled Paris 2015/Glasgow 2020: Five Years Which Changed the World. Through our prayers now, we can influence what he or she must write later, but only so long as we embrace the words of Psalm 146:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in human beings, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and everything in them--
he remains faithful forever.
He upholds the cause of the oppressed
and gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets prisoners free
The documentary often turns to Harold Nicolson for commentary, a British diplomat who kept a diary during the 1919 Conference. Looking back, Nicolson writes, “The peace negotiators of Paris were convinced that they would not commit the blunders or iniquities of the Congress of Vienna. Future generations will be equally convinced that they will be immune from the defects which assailed the negotiators of Paris. Yet they in their turn will be exposed to similar microbes of infection, to the eternal inadequacy of human intelligence.” I pray: “Lord God, we have suffered the World War II which the world inadvertently prepared for, despite warnings. Oh God, since we carry no immunity in ourselves, since our inadequacies are evident, please deliver us 'from the defects which assailed the [original] negotiators of Paris.'”
*CCOP is a joint project of Eden Vigil, Climate Caretakers, Climate Witness Project (CRCNA), Lausanne WEA Creation Care Network (US and Canada), and Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. Please pray with us and sign up for our newsletter here: http://eepurl.com/gHb8hz.