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From Katowice to Auschwitz — Ellie’s COP24 #2 blog post

by Ellie Cohen (see my COP24 #1 post here and #3 post here)

I visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp complex (Oświęcim in Polish) today while here in Poland for the annual UN climate meeting. My visit was sobering, to say the least. It was only a 35 minute drive from the COP24* in Katowice. As my “premium Auschwitz tour” passed under the infamous “arbeit macht frei”** gate, I was transported back in time and deeply moved.

Over 1.1 million people were exterminated there, the vast majority Jews. Brought by cattle cars from all over Europe in horrific conditions, families were forcibly separated, then individuals selected by Nazi doctors for their ability to “work” or not (providing labor for the Nazi regime under horrendous conditions that most people ultimately did not survive). Most women, children and older men were not selected to “work” but were told to take the long walk paralleling the train tracks to the gas chambers where they were, unbeknowst to them, about to be murdered then cremated.

Visiting Aushwitz-Birkenau– walking the long “ramp” from the entrance (behind in the distance) to the gas chambers where hundreds of thousands were murdered.

The night before at the UN climate proceedings in Katowice, Big Oil, in the form of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, prevented the initial acceptance of the recent IPCC 1.5°C report, a conservative assessment of the latest science on how dire things are becoming due to climate change (read more here).

While the events of the holocaust occurred more than 70 years ago, I began to realize how the lessons of Auschwitz relate all too tangibly to our world today. Some studies predict that society will move toward more authoritarianism and fascism as climate change worsens and threats grow. One definition of fascism is “a form of radical authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by ‘dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society and of the economy.'” We are seeing increasing shifts in this direction across the world, including in the United States. [Note that Brazil had committed to host the UNFCCC’s COP25 next year but with its new authoritarian-leaning leader, they have withdrawn from that commitment. The UNFCCC has yet to determine where next year’s COP will be held.]

At COP24, renowned climate policy expert and economist, Ottmar Edenhoffer, of the Potsdam Institute, said, “In the end, the climate problem is not our biggest market failure, it is the biggest government failure.  Other players are important, but governments assess and enact the policy implements for change.”

And a small sign posted at one of the Auschwitz prisoner blocks read, “Those who do not remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”

Are we forgetting the past and moving from one authoritarian, horrific outcome to another?  Not if we remember history and take action to protect the fundamental democratic values most us in the West now take for granted. We must keep hope alive, working to ensure that democratic processes thrive despite the challenges our changing climate is already imposing on humanity.

That also necessarily means we must continue to support and engage in science with its inherent evidence-based, transparent frameworks, to guide the best possible decision making during this time of rapid change.

*This COP24 is the 2018 “Conference of the Parties” to the United Nation Framework Convention on the Climate Change–the 24th meeting of the 195 countries of the world now signed on to the Rio environmental treaty of 1992 to prevent dangerous climate change.

**Translated as “work will set you free”– a terrible perversion of meaning as most prisoners walking through this gate never returned due to hard labor in subhuman conditions.