Start the world, we want to get on

The Copenhagen debacle gave little grounds for hope of concerted action against climate change, but

The climate-change meetings in Copenhagen proved something of a fiasco. The global nature of those December talks, with representatives attending from 192 countries - including many heads of state - certainly indicated that the world is taking climate change seriously. Yet the bickering that occurred between nations and groups of nations undermined the idea that humanity is coming together to take a stand against its risks. The Copenhagen Accord, the only tangible result of the 12-day event, is a slim document, put together by a handful of countries, to which states will sign up in a voluntary way.

Nations deciding to commit to the accord were supposed to have set out plans for reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions by 31 January. That deadline has since been "softened". A number of countries have submitted their promises for cutting carbon emissions, but these are generally seen as inadequate. At a meeting in New Delhi on 24 January, four of the five originators of the document (China, India, Brazil and South Africa) announced their intention to continue to support it, but only on condition that it will never become a treaty - that is, have binding force in international law. The current position of the United States, the other country that created the accord, is murky, as the proposed US climate change bill has not been endorsed by Congress and perhaps never will be, given the domestic difficulties President Obama faces.

So, will the accord lead to real action on a scale commensurate with the huge task involved? Obviously, it could founder. We shall have to wait and see, but I think it is a new beginning of potential importance. I was never much in fav­our of the Kyoto/Copenhagen-style approach, which was too slow-moving and bureaucratic to make the impact needed. If the accord does progress, it will be driven by a smaller group of countries. But that group is likely to include all the big polluters and, just as important, will probably cross-cut the divide between developed and developing countries, the prime source of acrimony at Copenhagen.

The accord therefore could provide a linchpin for emissions reductions, but we have to think and act on a broader scale, too. Copenhagen was not a singular event: its failure expresses deep-seated problems of global governance. We live in a far more interdependent world than any previous generation, and climate change is the negative expression of that interdependence. Yet the institutions of transnational governance have not advanced in tandem. The UN is regularly paralysed by the very divisions that sank the hopes entertained at Copenhagen.

I cut, you cut

Here are some of the points and problems that governments and other agencies should be thinking about and acting upon, whatever happens to the accord.

First, the various groups of countries should work with each other informally to make pro­gress in cutting emissions. Sixteen countries account for well over 80 per cent of total world emissions and they should be meeting in a regular way. That it was George W Bush who originally made this proposal shouldn't put us off what is a necessary idea post-Copenhagen.

Second, a G2 - the US and China working together (see box) - is an essential part of global policy, as these two nations alone contribute such a high proportion of emissions. It isn't likely to be an easy relationship, but the rest of the world has a stake in its effectiveness and should encourage such collaboration. There should also be a climate-change G3, involving the European Union. The EU was sidelined at Copenhagen when the accord was drawn up - a terrible rejection for an organisation that aspires to world leadership in this area. One chief reason was the usual difficulty - that the EU does not speak with one voice. A single person should represent the Union at future climate-change negotiations: either the new high representative for foreign affairs, Cathy Ashton, or someone specifically appointed for the task.

Third, close connections need to be drawn between emerging regulation of the world financial system and world climate-change policy. The G20, whose emergence is one of the most positive aspects of recent developments in global governance, is the obvious forum for exploring such overlaps. A transnational tax on financial transactions no longer looks as implausible as it did even a couple of years ago; in the medium term it could supply the means to help the poorer countries cope with climate change. The accord promises a fund for this purpose, building up to £100bn a year. If it is forthcoming, we will need to find ways to monitor how it is spent, because its sole purpose will be to help developing countries either to reduce their emissions or to adapt to the consequences of climate change. The existing conduit for channelling money to poorer countries, the Clean Development Mechanism, has made little impact in either respect.

The UN's role

Federal policy on climate change in the United States will now be weak at best. Yet the US is a diverse society, and other groups can help fill the void. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California has proposed that cities, states, provinces and regions work together to meet the challenge. The R20 group he established in 2009 has had considerable success in getting such groups to sign the pledge to reduce emissions by at least 20 per cent below those of 2005 by 2020. Activism at the sub-national level will play a vital role across the world, and some means should be found of giving NGOs a formal position in climate-change bargaining.

Finally, we must rethink the role of the United Nations. The UN's core weaknesses were laid bare in Copenhagen. Proceeding by full consensus simply isn't possible with issues where there are abiding differences of interest between countries. Most of the real action will now happen elsewhere. Yet, weak though it is at making decisions, the UN is in some respects irreplaceable. Whatever comes from the accord can't be left to the participating countries to monitor. We need a global regime, for example, to assess states' emissions and to track their progress. The logical home for any agency set up to carry out such work is the UN. Its participation is the best guarantee of impartiality.

The Copenhagen debacle could lead to a period of quiescence in which not much is done to pursue climate-change policy. But I don't think this is what will happen. We stand on the verge of profound change. The social and economic system created by the fusion of political and industrial revolution in Europe and North America, now becoming globalised, is starting to subvert itself. The dangers posed by climate change are the most far-reaching expressions of this, but we face much broader issues of sustainability. Whatever happens with formal agreements, we can anticipate a burst of innovation - economic, social, political and technological - over the coming decade and beyond.

Anthony Giddens is a Labour peer and the author of "The Politics of Climate Change" (Polity Press, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 08 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Cameron Street

REGIS BOSSU/SYGMA/CORBIS
Show Hide image

How memories of the Battle of Verdun inspired a new era of Franco-German co-operation

The fight at Verdun in 1916 set a precedent for peace that lives on at the heart of Europe.

How do you clear up after a battle that took the lives of more than a quarter of a million men? In Britain we don’t have much experience of this kind. There hasn’t been a major war on British soil since the 1640s, and that wasn’t a shock-and-awe inferno of industrial firepower (although it is estimated that a greater percentage of Britain’s population died in the civil wars than in the Great War).

The French, however, fought the Great War on home soil. The ten-month Battle of Verdun in 1916 stands out as the longest of the conflict, and one of the fiercest, with fighting concentrated in a small area of roughly 25 square miles. The terrain was pounded by heavy artillery and poisoned with gas; nine villages were reduced to rubble and never rebuilt – remaining on the map to this day as villages détruits.

In November 1918, soon after the Armis­tice, Monseigneur Charles Ginisty, the bishop of Verdun, was appalled to see mounds of unburied corpses and myriad bones still scattered across the blasted landscape – what was left of men who had been literally blown to bits by shellfire. “Should we abandon their sacred remains to this desert,” he asked in anguish, “littered with desiccated corpses . . . under a shroud of thorns and weeds, of forgetting and ingratitude?”

Ginisty became the driving force behind the ossuary at Douaumont, at what had been the very centre of the battlefield. This he intended to be both “a cathedral of the dead and a basilica of victory”. It is a strange but compelling place: a 450-foot-long vault, transfixed in the middle by a lantern tower, and styled in an idiosyncratic mix of Romanesque and art deco. To some visitors the tower looks like a medieval knight stabbing his broadsword into the ground; others are reminded of an artillery shell, or even a space rocket. Creepiest of all is what one glimpses through the little windows cut into the basement – piles of bones, harvested from the field of battle.

Sloping away downhill from the ossuary is the Nécropole Nationale, where the bodies of some 15,000 French soldiers are buried – mostly named, though some graves are starkly labelled inconnu (“unknown”). Each tomb is dignified with the statement “Mort pour la France” (no British war grave bears a comparable inscription). The nine villages détruits were given the same accolade.

For the French, unlike the British, 1914-18 was a war to defend and cleanse the homeland. By the end of 1914 the Germans had imposed a brutal regime of occupation across ten departments of north-eastern France. Verdun became the most sacred place in this struggle for national liberation, the only great battle that France waged alone. About three-quarters of its army on the Western Front served there during 1916, bringing Verdun home to most French families. Slogans from the time such as On les aura (“We’ll get ’em”) and Ils ne passeront pas (“They shall not pass”) entered French mythology, language and even song.

Little wonder that when the ossuary was inaugurated in 1932, the new French president, Albert Lebrun, declared: “Here is the cemetery of France.” A special plot at the head of the cemetery was set aside for Marshal Philippe Pétain, commander at the height of the battle in 1916 and renowned as “the Saviour of Verdun”.

The ossuary must surely contain German bones. How could one have nationally segregated that charnel house in the clean-up after 1918? Yet officially the ossuary was presented as purely French: a national, even nationalist, shrine to the sacrifice made by France. Interestingly, it was the soldiers who had fought there who often proved more internationally minded. During the 1920s many French veterans adopted the slogan Plus jamais (“Never again”) in their campaign to make 1914-18 la der des ders – soldier slang for “the last ever war”. And they were echoed across the border by German veterans, especially those on the left, proclaiming, “Nie wieder.”

For the 20th anniversary in 1936, 20,000 veterans, including Germans and Italians, assembled at Douaumont. Each took up his position by a grave and together they swore a solemn oath to keep the peace. There were no military parades, no singing of the Marseillaise. It was an immensely moving occasion but, in its own way, also political theatre: the German delegation attended by permission of the Führer to show off his peace-loving credentials.

Memory was transformed anew by the Second World War. In 1914-18 the French army had held firm for four years; in 1940 it collapsed in four weeks. Verdun itself fell in a day with hardly a shot being fired. France, shocked and humiliated, signed an armistice in June 1940 and Pétain, now 84, was recalled to serve as the country’s political leader. Whatever his original intentions, he ended up an accomplice of the Nazis: reactionary, increasingly fascist-minded, and complicit in the deportation of the Jews.

***

The man who came to embody French resistance in the Second World War was Charles de Gaulle. In 1916, as a young captain at Verdun, he had been wounded and captured. In the 1920s he was known as a protégé of the Marshal but in 1940 the two men diverged fundamentally on the question of collaboration or resistance.

De Gaulle came out the clear winner: by 1945 he was president of France, while Pétain was convicted for treason. The Marshal lived out his days on the Île d’Yeu, a rocky island off the west coast of France, where he was buried in 1951. The plot awaiting him in the cemetery at Douaumont became the grave of a general called Ernest Anselin, whose body remains there to this day. Yet Pétain sympathisers still agitate for the Marshal to be laid to rest in the place where, they insist, he belongs.

After 1945 it was hard for French leaders to speak of Verdun and Pétain in the same breath, although de Gaulle eventually managed to do so during the 50th anniversary in 1966. By then, however, la Grande Guerre had begun to assume a new perspective in both France and Germany. The age-old enemies were moving on from their cycle of tit-for-tat wars, stretching back from 1939, 1914 and 1870 to the days of Napoleon and Louis XIV.

In January 1963 de Gaulle – who had spent half the Great War in German POW camps – and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who first visited Paris to see the German delegation just before it signed the Treaty of Versailles, put their names to a very different treaty at the Élysée Palace. This bound the two countries in an enduring nexus of co-operation, from regular summits between the leaders down to town-twinning and youth exchanges. The aim was to free the next generation from the vice of nationalism.

France and West Germany were also founder members of the European Community – predicated, one might say, on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them”. For these two countries (and for their Benelux neighbours, caught in the jaws of the Franco-German antagonism), European integration has always had a much more beneficent meaning than it does for Britain, geographically and emotionally detached from continental Europe and much less scarred by the two world wars.

It was inevitable that eventually Verdun itself would be enfolded into the new Euro-narrative. On 22 September 1984 President François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl stood in the pouring rain in front of the ossuary for a joint commemoration. In 1940 Sergeant Mitterrand had been wounded near Verdun, and Kohl’s father had served there in 1916, so personal memories sharpened the sense of political occasion. During the two national anthems, Mitterrand, apparently on impulse, grasped Kohl’s hand in what has become one of the most celebrated images of Franco-German reconciliation.

“If we’d had ceremonies like this before the Second World War,” murmured one French veteran, “we might have avoided it.”

Institutional memory has also moved on. In 1967 a museum dedicated to the story of the battle was opened near the obliterated village of Fleury. It was essentially a veterans’ museum, conceived by elderly Frenchmen to convey what they had endured in 1916 to a generation that had known neither of the world wars. For the centenary in 2016 the Fleury museum has undergone a makeover, updated with new displays and interactive technology and also reconceived as a museum of peace, drawing in the Germans as well as the French.

With time, too, some of the scars of battle have faded from the landscape. Trees now cover this once-ravaged wasteland; the graveyards are gardens of memory; the EU flag flies with the French and German tricolours over the battered fort at Douaumont. Yet bodies are still being dug up – 26 of them just three years ago at Fleury. And even when the sun shines here it is hard to shake off the ghosts.

Exploring the battlefield while making two programmes about Verdun for Radio 4, the producer Mark Burman and I visited l’Abri des Pèlerins (“the pilgrims’ shelter”) near the village détruit of Douaumont. This was established in the 1920s to feed the builders of the ossuary, but it has continued as the only eating place at the centre of the battlefield. Its proprietor, Sylvaine Vaudron,
is a bustling, no-nonsense businesswoman, but she also evinces a profound sense of obligation to the past, speaking repeatedly of nos poilus, “our soldiers”, as if they were still a living presence. “You realise,” she said sternly at one point, “there are 20,000 of them under our feet.” Not the sort of conversation about the Great War that one could have anywhere in Britain.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: the Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His series “Verdun: the Sacred Wound” will go out on BBC Radio 4 on 17 and 24 February (11am)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle