Young Voices

Mitzi Jonelle Tan: In the Frontlines of the Climate Movement

Reading time: 7 minutes

The Philippines contributes to less than 1% of the world’s carbon emissions, yet its citizens are some of the world’s most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. To talk more about this, we interviewed Filipino climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan.

The Philippines contributes to less than 0.40% of the world’s carbon emissions, yet Filipinos are some of the most vulnerable to the rising sea levels and increasing temperatures. In 2019 the Institute for Economics and Peace found found the Philippines is the country most at risk from the effects climate change. Its citizens suffer some of the most extreme weather conditions in the world, being faced with an average of twenty typhoons a year.

At the same time, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous places to be an activist. In 2019 forty-three climate environmental defenders were killed, putting the Philippines second on the “most environmental defenders killed” list.

An anti-terror law passed in the summer of last year has also made almost all forms of activism and protest illegal, raising the tensions between the Filipino government and demonstrators.

Rodrigo Duterte, Philippines’ president, has spoken multiple times on his commitment to combat the climate crisis, and has publicly urged other leaders to do the same. Yet many environmentalists and climate activists have questioned his commitment to the cause, pointing to the lack of action coming from the government.

To learn more about this we talked to Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a Filipino climate activist. She is the co-founder of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, the Fridays for the Future campaign in the Philippines. Now a full-time activist, Jonelle has dedicated much of her time to raising awareness and lobbying for a collective effort to fight the effects of the climate crisis.

The Philippines is one of the countries most affected by climate change, yet you guys have very low carbon emissions. I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about that, and about how the climate crisis affects your community specifically.

The Philippines contributes about 0.37% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, yet we are one of the most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis. And what that looks like concretely, is having the last three strongest storm landfalls in recorded history all happen in the Philippines. There are studies that always say “this is a once in a lifetime” typhoon, well I have experienced like ten “once in a lifetime” strength typhoons.

I grew up having to do my homework by the candle light, because the electricity was out. I would drown in my own bedroom because of the floods. But at the same time it’s not just the weather, it’s also that we don’t have the structures to adapt. Our evacuation centers are schools or gyms or churches, but they also get flooded because they were not built as evacuation centers.

And you would expect that because of all this, people would be more aware of the climate crisis, but that is not the case. Even if you do have climate education in school, or you are privileged enough to go to school, you learn about a very westernized, foreign technical format of the climate crisis.

It doesn’t have an impact on people because the way in which climate change is taught is not very empowering. It is not taught with a sense of urgency, it’s just another scientific fact.

How did you first become involved in the movement?

I grew up seeing the effects of the typhoons, but despite all that, and despite seeing how the typhoons would destroy our trees and our environment, I didn’t put two and two together because it wasn’t something that was taught in school.

Then one day at my university, I was able to talk to an indigenous leader. He told us that they were being killed, misplaced, harassed and militarized, and then ever so simply he chuckled, shrugged and said “that’s why we have no choice, but to fight back.” It was the simplicity of how he said it, how he wasn’t even trying to convince us of anything, that really got to me. I realized that he was right. We have no choice but to fight back. I had to join the collective struggle for environmental justice.

Most of the communities you are mentioning are not at the forefront. How do you try to uplift these voices in the conversation?

We can’t pretend that the climate movement isn’t a very Eurocentric or white movement. I think there have been great strides in the past year to change that. At least in the spaces in which I organize, things are becoming more intersectional.

In the Philippines, it’s hard for us to get actual indigenous people and communities to be the ones at the international panels because of the language barrier and the internet, or a lot of times it’s also a matter of safety. So we always do our best to consult with them. Before the pandemic a lot of what YACAP did was to bring students to these communities to learn from them firsthand.

And when I’m speaking at events or panels, I always remind people that even though I have been impacted by the climate crisis, it’s hugely a privileged story, so many others have it worse. Everything we do has to be centered around the ones who are most impacted. That sometimes means having to call out people who are your friends, because they don’t notice that what they’re saying plays into the systems of racial injustice.

You’ve organized plenty of strikes. How do you think those can bring change and how have you seen it bring change in the Philippines?

You get to reach the people that you don’t usually reach on social media. That’s one of the difficulties with purely online activism, you don’t reach a lot of people, especially those who don’t have access to social media, who are usually the ones most impacted by the climate crisis.

You get coverage from national media and that reaches a wide audience. And also people on the streets can see you. We have had a lot of people in strikes come to us and be like “Hey, what are you guys talking about? Why are you guys striking?” And you have a conversation with people who might not necessarily have seen you anywhere on [MM10] social media.

Campaigning  has been able to raise awareness. We used to have to beg schools to give a speaking engagement, and now they’re the ones who come to us. Our government started talking about climate emergency bills and started spewing out restorative climate justice when it was never on the agenda before. We’re still pushing for more, but there have been good strides.

The Filippino government is very outspoken on the effects and damages of climate change, yet there seems to be a lack of direct action in the Philippines. Why do you think that is?

I have the same question. We have so many climate policies here in the Philippines. We have our own climate change commission and we have all of these commissions and offices, but the implementation isn’t there. Say something happened, we’re going to pour money into these rescue boats, but you can’t even use them because they cannot be used in the cities because of all the debris floating around when there is a flood.

We also see how our environmental activists and defenders keep getting killed, keep getting harassed for what they’re doing, for protecting their ancestral lands.

And there is also the lack of climate education. They have had a draft to implement it in schools since 2012, but it’s still not something that’s being rolled out everywhere.

We don’t know why, we’re also asking them why. I never know what to say when people ask me, “why do you think the government isn’t acting enough?” I don’t know, because to me it’s so clear that this is an emergency and that is something we have to act on now. They say they understand and that they see the problem. So why are you lying to us? Why is so little being done?

What is something that you wish more people understood about the climate change movement?

It won’t be solved by one person. It won’t be solved by individuals. It is a collective problem, so it should also be a collective solution. It is a systemic problem, so it should be a systemic solution . Individual lifestyle change can help and is needed, but not everyone is able to do that. Having systemic change will help us in order to get everyone to be able to do lifestyle change.

Remember that those most responsible, they’re not individuals, they are industries, they are companies, they are governments supporting these companies and these industries.

We also can’t keep seeing the climate crisis as just an environmental issue, it is a social justice issue. People are going to be impacted on different levels, depending on the already existing social and economic injustices. There is such a great need for us to really unite as a movement.

What are some ways people outside of the Philippines could show solidarity?

A lot of people discount the importance of raising awareness, but that’s something that can really, really help. If we’re talking about climate justice, it’s important to pressure your world leaders to step up. Think of more than just your country’s survival, think of the survival of those in the most vulnerable areas.

Having these conversations, reaching out to people, following the voices of the people who are most impacted. I feel like that’s a good way to really ground your activism, so that you’re sure that what you’re doing isn’t just for you and your community, but the global community.

You can also support Filipino solidarity organizations that do joint campaigns with other organizations here in the Philippines. Having these joint campaigns across the world is something so powerful because it tells leaders all over the world, including your country, and my country, that “hey, it’s not just us asking for this, we have a global movement backing us up.”

Is there anything else you want to add or want the readers to know?

You are important and you don’t have to know everything. It’s so important to ask questions, at some point we all started with zero knowledge. So join the movement, ask questions, educate yourself, empower yourself, and turn that into action because we need you.

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