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Mitzi Jonelle Tan on fighting for climate justice on and off the streets

By DANNA PEÑA Published Aug 20, 2021 6:00 am

From wildfires aggravated by heat waves and catastrophic floods due to intensified storms, the whole world is reeling from climate change and nobody is safe from it.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared a "code red for humanity” in a report released last Aug. 9, but it also highlights how human actions still have the potential to control the future course of climate. 

Amidst the tsunami of doomsday headlines this sobering report conjured up, activists like 23-year-old Mitzi Jonelle Tan continue to shine a light, remaining steadfast in demanding climate action and amplifying the movement.

Besides being a convener and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), she’s also an organizer with Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future (FFF) International and FFF MAPA (Most Affected Peoples and Areas), ensuring that the voices from the Global South are amplified and given space. 

YOUNG STAR: Had it been a straight path for you when it came to pursuing climate justice work? 

When I was in university, I was part of Agham Youth, a “science for the people” organization that’s one of the main founders of YACAP. We were already doing climate-related science protests, which I think started in 2017 when Trump said he didn’t believe in climate change.

Scientists worldwide marched to say that climate change is real and has to be taken seriously. It was roughly the same time that I talked to the Lumad leader, so this culmination of events led me to my climate activism.

 With her activist work, Mitzi ensures voices are amplified and given space.

If I didn’t end up joining the student council or meeting that Lumad leader, maybe I wouldn't be here. But at one point or another, I feel like I would still have ended up where I am today. Maybe it would have just taken longer or been a different flavor. 

You had a life-changing encounter with a Lumad leader in 2017. Can you describe what that moment was like?

I was part of my college’s student council and we were able to integrate with the Lumad indigenous people. I got to talk to one of the datus and he shared everything that was happening to them, how they even voted for Duterte and how they felt betrayed. He simply shrugged, chuckled, and said, “That’s why we have no choice but to fight back.” 

It was so simple, the way that he didn't even try to convince us of anything. I realized I had this privilege to choose to be an activist — that there were people who had no choice but to become activists because the consequences for them would be worse. I remember crying because I was really moved by what he said. 

Can you describe your work as a full-time climate justice activist? 

Before the pandemic, we raised awareness about climate change through school visits and speaking engagements. We visited communities and brought students along with us to learn from environmental defenders who experience environmental changes firsthand. 

It’s the same when the pandemic hit, but most of it is now done online. From TikTok dances, to relief operations, to global climate strikes, we’ve gotten really creative on how we approached online activism. Street protests still happen but are downsized, depending on the COVID-19 guidelines during the time.

We also attend a lot of Zoom calls and global meet-ups online. There’s no longer a physical barrier to organizing together, so the international community got really strong. 

What are your ongoing campaigns and what do you hope to achieve with them? 

We’re leading a global campaign called the Clean Up Standard Chartered, a campaign against Standard Chartered Bank, which is one of the world’s largest coal financers. Across the globe, we target the bank through physical and online actions. This campaign ultimately seeks divestment in the fossil fuel industry.

We also have the climate education campaign, which aims to include climate education in the school curriculum. We’re also making climate modules for communities that are conceptualized to match the communities’ context, so we’re going to be visiting farming and fishing communities to learn from them and see how climate science can be integrated with their campaigns. 

What are your proudest achievements in the work you’ve done so far? 

My mind goes to two. One of them is whenever someone gets inspired by our work and becomes an activist themselves. That’s what activism is about, right? It's collective. When people become activists in ways they're comfortable with and realize that being an activist can be fun despite it being dangerous and scary sometimes — that's such a great achievement for me. 

Another one of my proudest moments was when we picked up the Anti-Terror Law campaign last year because it targeted environmental defenders. We got the international community to support it, including people like Greta Thunberg and Naomi Klein. People worldwide showed solidarity with Filipinos, posted infographics we made, and translated them into so many different languages.

What are your favorite climate news resources and do you have tips for those who want to learn more?

A lot of it is actually Instagram and Twitter, but don't just take it from those places. On Instagram, there are so many infographics you can learn from. Make those your jump-off points then research more because it's definitely not enough. On Twitter, I follow a lot of climate scientists and journalists that share climate news.

The first resource I dived into was the IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC that came out in 2018, which is extremely detailed. You can read the entire thing or read summaries given by the scientists themselves.

What hinders many people from getting involved is the lack of a support system. What advice would you give to those who are trying to find theirs?

You’re so right. Having a community and a support system is so important because it’s what really keeps me going. If you can’t find one, you can start one — that's what we did with YACAP.

Sometimes it's just talking to your friends about things you care about or finding people online. I would say to just start talking to people, which can be really scary and intimidating at first. It can be online or in-person, depending on what you’re comfortable with. 

What is your dream for the Philippines?

My dream for the Philippines is the same dream I have for everywhere else. It’s pretty simple: it would be to have a society that prioritizes the planet over profit. That’s what climate justice is really calling for. It's a society where no one is left behind.

Photo by Angela de Castro