We went to the Natural History Museum’s Generation Hope: Act for the Planet event to speak with the environmental justice activist about how young people can use their influence and actions to drive positive change for the Earth’s future.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan is an environmental justice activist from the Philippines. She is the convenor and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP) and an organiser with Fridays For Future MAPA.
Her mission is to expose the multifaceted nature of the ecological emergency and guarantee that voices from the Global South in particular are heard, amplified, and given space.
A strong voice on anti-imperialism, anti-colonisation, and the intersectionality of the climate crisis, she is committed to changing the system and building a world that prioritises people and planet, not profit, through collective action.
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Thred: When did you decide to dedicate your time to safeguarding the future of our planet? What made you want to take it to a global height, from project to mission to life’s work?
Mitzi: The Philippines is one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world. Growing up there, I saw the impacts of the crisis – the typhoons, the flooding – in my community first-hand. At the time, I didn’t know it had anything to do with climate change because the way it was being taught to us in school was very foreign, technical, and isolating rather than empowering. We were focusing on the wider issues which are of course important, but we weren’t talking about the direct impact of the crisis on our communities. In 2017, I spoke to an Indigenous leader. He didn’t even tell me his name because the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders and activists. He was telling me about how they were being harassed, displaced, militarised, and killed for protecting their ancestral home. Then he shrugged and said ‘that’s why we have no choice but to fight back.’
It was the simplicity of this notion that burst my bubble of privilege and led me to realise I too had to join the fight to save our dying planet.
Thred: What are the biggest issues in your country right now? How can we fix them?
Mitzi: Like the rest of the world we are amid an extremely difficult economic crisis right now and have been for a while. As inflation rates soar it becomes harder for people to adapt to the impacts of the climate crisis. The climate crisis is a very serious issue for us, we experience flooding almost every year, there are always oil spills, and fossil fuel companies continue to cut down our forests and mangroves. On top of all of this, our president is the son of a dictator who was in power 50 years ago. His reign was one of the worst times in history for the Philippines and his son is now following in his footsteps by foregoing all environmental and human rights protections. These compounding problems are contributing to how we are able to survive and mitigate the climate crisis.
Thred: How can we push for more methods of climate adaptation from a top-down level so that those being most disproportionately affected are being given the resources they deserve?
Mitzi: First, we urgently need more research into climate adaptation. But adaptation that’s pro-people, pro-community, looks different in different countries, and the lack of research means that the appropriate methods aren’t being implemented the right ways. Secondly, we need financing from the Global North for climate adaptation, mitigation, and loss and damage. At the moment, it’s nowhere near enough. While investments in oil, coal, and gas continue to rise. And the financing that exists right now is in the form of loans so countries that are disproportionately affected are indebted to the countries that are driving the crisis. There is something inherently wrong there.
Thred: These conversations were had at COP27 and many felt that the subsequent action was nowhere near enough. What’s your take on the outcome of the most recent summit?
Mitzi: We did see a historic victory at COP27 with the loss and damage fund. But it only happened because of the decades of activists, lobbyists, civil society, and some key leaders (mostly from the Pacific Islands) doing their work to push the narrative forward. Now we have a bucket, but there’s no money in it, it’s empty. So we need to ensure that it’s actually filled with money, we need to know where it’s going and how it’s going to be accessed by marginalised groups. We also need to ensure that it’s doubled because yes we have this bucket, but we have additional buckets for adaptation and mitigation that need filling. It’s all useless until it’s filled.
Thred: Your passion evidently lies in encouraging the world’s younger generations to step up, rather than shut down, against any matters they are passionate about. Why is this so important?
Mitzi: It’s important because we need to realise that young people are revolutionary. If you look at historical moments in society, the younger generations were always leading the way alongside their elders to push for change. It’s now our generation’s time. We have to make sure that we’re not doing it alone, however. It should be a collaborative multigenerational effort. Young people are the ones with the most at stake so we have to make sure we are empowering them towards collective action and systemic change without putting the onus on them entirely.
We can’t force young people into pursuing individual lifestyle changes. It’s a disservice to our generation to do so.