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Exclusive – In conversation with Mitzi Jonelle Tan

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.

Thred: It’s about recognising youth power and fostering intergenerational change simultaneously. This isn’t possible if those in power continue resorting to youthwashing and tokenisation. On this note, how can we be amplifying the voices of frontline communities and marginalised groups – those most impacted by the crisis – without resorting to these inherently damaging tactics?

Mitzi: I think it depends on who the ‘we’ is. If we’re talking about civil society and the media (anything but governmental or multinational really) then it’s all about focusing on amplification and guaranteeing that when we talk about young people from the Global South especially, we don’t just use them as sad statistics or anecdotes in speeches. We need to incorporate the voices of resistance as well because where there is the greatest oppression and struggle there are the people who deserve to be listened to the most. If we’re talking about more formal structures, it’s about having more than just youth representation. It shouldn’t stop there. We need to improve climate education across all parts of society so that young people are empowered to become active citizens in every decision or policymaking process.

Thred: Too often, young people are excluded from decision making spaces. How can we ensure there is greater youth involvement in the conversations aiming to instigate change?

Mitzi: We need to have youth involvement that stretches further than the offer of a single panel. Yes, they’re important as they promote the message we’re seeking to get across, but we need young people to be involved in the processes themselves. Even if we’re there in the room, if we have a seat at the table, we need those in power to act.

Without action, there is no tangible youth involvement. Action is what young people want above all else.

Thred: Gen Z is suffering with a debilitating fear of our climate emergency known as eco-anxiety. How do you involve yourself with this activism without letting it consume you? And how can we deal with this overwhelming feeling of powerlessness so that our mental health is protected?

Mitzi: Most climate activists who seem as though they have it together, are likely experiencing really bad eco-anxiety. We have to recognise that this doesn’t necessarily stem from rising emissions or extreme weather events etc., but because of the inaction of world leaders. Our lived experiences are being ignored. The people in power that are supposed to be serving us are letting billions die and suffer.

The way I involve myself with this activism without letting it bring me down is by involving myself with it.

It’s what fulfils me. It’s about building community, and joy, and love. At its core, climate justice is about fighting for life. And what is life without dancing, singing, and enjoying the beauty of nature? It’s for life in the sense of living beings, but also a lifelong journey. Because I’m part of this great collective across the planet there is always going to be hope. For this reason, climate activism is the answer to my climate anxiety.

Thred: Besides the changes we can make on an independent level, what’s the best means of approaching influencing change on a grander scale? Aka how do we shift the focus of the conversation from individual to corporate action (think, recycling v manufacture).

Mitzi: Empower yourself with knowledge, but also don’t think that you need to have a certain level of knowledge to be able to start. There is so much I still don’t know about the science behind all of this, there are so many terms I’m yet to learn. It’s difficult on purpose – this speaks to the grander scale of how science is approached across the world. Don’t do it alone. Find a group, find a community, find friends you can do this with. Find ways to do this together based on what you’re already interested in doing. Utilise your niches to tap into a wider audience. There are so many movements, such a variety of choice. Pick what calls to you and follow it.

Channel your passions, find a community that resonates with you, and start small.

Thred: What do you deem the top priority in the fight against climate injustice? Namely, what issue do you deem most urgent that you’d like to see action around in the immediate future?

Mitzi: Ramp up climate finance. When we talk about this in the context of the Global North and South, I want to be clear that it isn’t the working class citizens that should be paying up, it’s the fossil fuel companies, the huge multinational conglomerates that during the pandemic were gaining profit. These are the people we should be taxing. We also really need to phase out all fossil fuels and drastically reduce emissions. The same countries that claim to care about climate are propping up the industry. We need to focus on holding them accountable.

Thred: What advice would you give to young people looking to make a difference in this sphere but who are struggling to figure out where to even begin? What’s the best way for the youth of today – united in their mission to save the planet – to connect with each other on this?

Mitzi: Start with your local community and then learn from the different struggles, campaigns, and movements across the globe. There is so much importance in doing the on-the-ground, grassroots stuff before you connect with the international work. You’d be surprised how similar our problems are around the world. What happens in one country will affect everyone else. It’s about finding common struggles, exchanging experiences, and assessing how we can keep collaborating.