WW1: Can the Treaty of Versailles help us tackle climate change?

The whole world around a table

Almost 100 years ago, in 1919, the world's leaders faced the grave challenge of rebuilding following the chaos and destruction of World War One. What they did set the blueprint for how international diplomacy has been organised ever since.

The Treaty of Versailles, and the Paris peace conference that led to it, established a new world order; one in which world affairs would be discussed and settled in big, open, international conferences.

As a BBC correspondent I've been to my fair share of these conferences over the years, and I've seen the slow progress made at them when politicians try to tackle the major global issues of our times. I'm interested in what we can learn from the successes and failures of this model, and whether the legacy of Versailles is still a useful approach to one of our most complex challenges: climate change.

David Shukman, Science Editor, BBC News, standing in front of a road.
Presented by David Shukman, Science Editor, BBC News.

The world in one city

When world leaders gathered in Paris in 1919, the mood was one of ambition, excitement and idealism. But what would they achieve?

The League of Nations

The establishment of the League of Nations was one of the key outcomes of the Treaty of Versailles. It would be an international organisation which could unite nations in an attempt to make sure the carnage of the previous four years didn’t happen again.

Early success

The League enjoyed a number of notable successes. It solved border disputes between a number of European states that might once have led to wider regional conflicts. In the field of health it standardised vaccination against diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus and tuberculosis. It also provided aid and support for 1.5 million refugees in post-war Turkey. By 1935, 58 countries were members.

A major setback

The League had no formal power, other than that of its member states, that could carry weight on the global stage. It suffered a major setback when Woodrow Wilson was unable to convince the US Senate that America should join. Without the involvement of a key power, there was a limit to what it could achieve.

Powerless to prevent a new world war

The organisation suffered more setbacks during the 1930s when the losing powers of the First World War sought to discredit it. When Adolf Hitler broke the terms of the Versailles Treaty by building up the German military, the League was powerless to act. Unchecked by the international community, the outcome of Hitler’s actions was the Second World War, which broke out in 1939, just 20 years after the establishment of the League.

Ultimately the League had failed in its primary purpose: preventing another world war. It was disbanded in 1946. Yet many of its founding principles were inherited by the United Nations, which was established after World War Two, and still shapes much of international politics today.

Photograph of US President Woodrow Wilson
US President Woodrow Wilson was a key architect of the League of Nations, but he couldn't persuade America to join.

From the League to the UN

The United Nations continues many of the aims and methods of the League of Nations. But it does so on a far larger scale.

The UN's big successes

The United Nations often makes the headlines when countries are struggling to reach agreement. We tend to talk less about its successes. But there have been significant moments when it has brought nations together to make the world a safer place.

Protecting the ozone layer

Pollutants released into the environment by individual countries can have effects around the world. In the 1970s and 80s, scientists realised that chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases from fridges and aerosol cans were reacting with the layer of ozone gas, which screens out harmful ultra-violet rays from the Sun, high in the earth's atmosphere. Satellite images revealed a hole growing over the continent of Antarctica.

In 1987, 46 countries adopted the Montreal Protocol by committing themselves to halving their CFC emissions in just over a decade. Since then, a series of amendments has strengthened control on CFC gasses. Now over 200 countries have signed up. Damage to the ozone layer is expected to be reversed by the middle of the century.

Eradicating smallpox

Viruses are no respecters of international borders. Smallpox was one of history's most feared plagues, killing and maiming victims on six continents. A vaccine was discovered in 1796, and several countries declared themselves free of the disease by the middle of the twentieth century. However, the growth in international travel meant that no-one could be safe without a worldwide effort.

In 1967, the United Nations' World Health Organisation began a global vaccination programme. The disease was officially declared eradicated just 13 years later. Smallpox is just one of a number of infectious diseases, which have been brought under control through international co-operation.

Regulating air travel

Flying is inherently risky, and international travel requires co-operation between many different teams of people in different countries. They operate in different time zones, often speak different languages, and may even use different systems for measuring distance and height.

Yet air travel has remained one of the safest forms of transport. The Convention on International Civil Aviation in 1944 set the blueprint for co-operation on international flight and it remains governed by stringent protocols. This agreement now ensures the safety of over 10,000 international flights a day.

Tackling emissions

The Kyoto Protocol was the world’s first attempt to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. It came into force in 2005 after it was ratified by 55 countries. But it fell far short of its aims.

The world’s two leading emitters were not included. China, as a developing nation, was exempt. The United States never ratified the treaty. And, for the countries taking part, the targets for cuts in emissions were widely criticised for being too modest.

A new conference for today

When it comes to tackling climate change, international diplomacy has had limited success. So are international conferences enough?

Learn more about this topic:

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Jeremy Paxman: The Great War
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World War One with Dan Snow
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