Kirti Manian [00:00:55]: Hi Mitzi, welcome to the show. I’m going to start by asking you this. How did you get started on your personal journey in climate change? In doing so, where did the idea for YACAP come about – in reaction to what was happening worldwide or would you call it a home-grown idea?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:01:12]: So, I’ve always been very passionate about the environment even as a young child. I remember this very interesting story that my parents liked to tell me - “There was a huge typhoon in the Philippines and then after the rains stopped we went out. I saw all the trees were uprooted and I just started crying.”
That was like one of the very first instances I remember being so emotionally hit about what was happening with the climate and then over the years as I was growing older I would join relief operations for typhoon victims that were hit by these massive floods, but it never actually got tied to climate change for me.
But I mean, I’ve always known it was for… about climate change. I’ve always been very vocal about carbon-dioxide emissions and greenhouse gas emissions, but I guess as a child because of the lack of climate education in the Philippines, it was never really tied just how connected like these meteorological extreme events happened and tied to like greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
Like, in school it was more or less just explained as like the heating of the temperatures but never explained that it is also the cause behind all these typhoons and all these calamities that we were experiencing first hand; probably because our climate education – the little that we had of it was very tied to Western concepts. So, it was more about ice caps melting and the world heating up but not about what the people in the Global South, what people in the Philippines were experiencing.
In college - that’s when I became an activist – I was an environmental rights activist and a human rights activist and that’s when I started realizing the connections of the climate crisis, so there was a big jump from my childhood days, the high school, and it was in only college that it really got tied together; the climate justice movement, the climate crisis movement and how it’s actually affecting us firsthand.
And the idea of YACAP came only last year actually – in 2019. It wasn’t just me. Since YACAP is an alliance of organizations and individuals, my organization Agham Youth – ‘agham’ means science in Filipino. It’s basically an organization that advocates for science and technology for the people, and we were the ones who had the idea to start up this alliance of not just individuals but also organizations so that we are tapping more people, we are reaching more numbers; since there is power in numbers, and that’s how YACAP came about.
Before that, I was already a climate activist but not with YACAP yet because it didn’t exist yet. I guess in a way you could say that YACAP was a mixture of a home-grown idea and what was happening worldwide. We’ve always been playing with the idea that maybe we should start connecting with other organizations, with our climate activism nationally because our organization was a university-based one, but we saw the power and the importance of connecting with other organizations, but it was only in 2019 when this global movement really started to pick up and spark that we really saw the need and the push for it because before 2019 not a lot of organizations were also interested.
Like, not a lot of youth organizations rather were interested in the climate justice movement, but with the pickup of everything happening worldwide and more information being so ready online and not just like in academic papers but in news sites, social media. That’s when more interest came and that’s when we were like - “Okay, people are looking for this now. We’ve had this idea for so long, we should try it, we should do it now.”
Kirti Manian [00:05:03]: You mentioned typhoons and that’s something that keeps happening in the Philippines year on year. You called it an extreme weather event. Now, what else is happening in the Philippines in terms of climate change? Can you define some of the things that are happening please?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:05:19]: Ya, so, the extreme typhoons and the… the longer and warmer droughts; that’s something that we already associated with climate change, definitely happening in the Philippines, but other things that are happening in the Philippines that people don’t usually associate with the climate crisis is how the storms are affecting our food sovereignty and food security because our farmers and fisherfolk - their livelihoods are being disrupted and because of sea level rising in some areas, fresh water is no longer available because the saltwater is going into the freshwater sources and it’s also going into the soil which makes it harder for farmers.
And then, there are actual cities in the Philippines that are sinking and that’s because of sea level rising and that’s like the slow onset event of impacts of the climate crisis that are also part of the climate crisis and they are very alarming even if they are slower and that’s something that we need to bring light into as well not just the extreme storms and the flooding that’s caused by it and the droughts but also these sea level rising and the impacts of that on the Filipinos.
Kirti Manian [00:06:30]: What is the government policy then, about climate change? Please enlighten us about how the government’s dealing with this issue.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:06:36]: In terms of government policy, the Philippines actually prides itself of having – I’m not sure if it’s the most or one of the most policies for climate change. Considering other countries, we have a lot of climate change policies, but the thing is the implementation is close to none. Even with all these policies, they are not actually being implemented properly, like even if we have air pollution-monitoring sites, they are not even accurate anymore because they are not being maintained or when they get broken, then no one fixes it because there is no proper budget for it sometimes.
There’s no support for science and technology here. So scientists and technologists, not enough of them are actually studying what’s happening in the Philippines with the monitoring sites to their aid, like a lot of their studies are based on privately-owned monitoring sites because those are the ones that are more accurate. Those are the ones that actually support our scientists, and it’s such a shame that our local government isn’t supporting our scientists to solve the climate crisis.
And, even if… like, let’s say we have all these policies on climate change. The other policies that we have are very opposite to them, like let’s say – we have a policy that allows wanton mining, extraction and we’ve government projects that cut down mangroves to build an airport city. We have reclamation projects by the government that will destroy corals and displace fisherfolk to build casinos.
Despite all these climate change policies, even if they were being implemented properly with all the other projects and policies that the government is doing, it basically just cancels it out. That was if it was being implemented, but it’s not even doing that. We have a Climate Change Commission here and they are actually supportive of climate activism, but the problem is there’s not so much they can do. They are also very dependent on the other departments like the Department of Energy, the Department of Transportation and in the end they are basically just there to tell people that this is what’s happening, but then they don’t have the power to actually tell these departments that need to lower their emissions to actually do it.
And then, there is also the fact that a lot of our climate change policies are more a disaster risk management. Like there’s a storm, what do we do after, but it’s never how do we make sure that these floods don’t happen, like there’s nothing on fixing the drainage systems in the city, there’s nothing on making sure we have proper evacuation sites. It’s more of… it’s very reactionary like – there’s a storm, this happens, we have do something. Instead of increasing our adaptability it’s always just “okay, what do we do next,” it’s never going to the root of the problem.
Kirti Manian [00:09:41]: And then, how do ordinary Filipinos react to the notion of climate change? I mean, if there’s a typhoon every year and sometimes it’s just monthly especially when it’s typhoon season. How do they react to the notion of climate change and then when you have activism and you are saying that the Climate Commission actively encourages climate activism, how do ordinary Filipinos deal with climate strikes? Are they having the intended effect or are people concerned with just day-to-day living so to speak?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:10:09]: Well, the Climate Change Commission isn’t actively encouraging climate strikes, they are just supportive when we reached out to them, but if we wouldn’t reach out to them, they wouldn’t be promoting it. In terms of Filipinos reacting to the climate change and climate strikes, we are still in the popularization stage of the climate justice movement in general.
Like, what I said earlier, climate education is not a big thing here in the Philippines, although recently our Department of Education is trying to include it into our curriculum, but that had to be put on pause because of the health pandemic that’s happening. So, that wasn’t pushed through yet.
Hopefully, that helps younger children and more Filipinos know about climate education and the climate crisis, but even then there is also the fact that quality education is not accessible to majority of the Filipinos who are in the lower sectors of our class, so like the urban poor, our farmers, our fisherfolk, majority of our Filipinos are from those classes and even if you have climate education in schools if these children can’t afford schools or if they can’t even attend school because it’s too far from their homes, it’s not going to help them.
So, that’s also one of the things that YACAP does really. We go to farmers, we go to fisherfolk and we go to the urban poor and talk to them about the climate crisis and it’s not so much as teaching them about it, because they already know the impact. They already experience it firsthand, because they are the ones who are experiencing it first-hand.
Kirti Manian [00:11:44]: They face the brunt of it yeah...
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:11:46]: Ya, it’s more of just giving them terms and like just putting labels for what they already know, and it… we often learn so much more from them because the impacts we see it, we read about it, but we never know how it actually feels. They are the ones who know how it feels.
Kirti Manian [00:12:03]: When you are talking and engaging with fisherfolk, with farmers, do you think the act empowers them or is it just one more layer to add on to their knowledge so to speak?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:12:16]: Ya, I definitely think it empowers them because it also makes them realize that “okay, what we were thinking about moving the crop season, there are crops that you can only plant during the dry season and during the rainy season.” Also, they already know this because they are experiencing it firsthand that okay, the dry season is getting longer. They are learning ways to make sure that okay, that if the dry season is getting longer, we really do have to adjust, it affirms what they already know and what they’ve already been experiencing.
Definitely the farmers that I’ve talked to, they said that this knowledge empowers them because then they also have another demand. When they demand from the government for local support and for subsidies, they also demand that the climate crisis be resolved that we call out the carbon majors that are actually contributing more to the climate crisis.
It’s actually very heartwarming because during our climate strikes, we have fisherfolk with us and we have workers with us and we have indigenous people with us even if it’s still a growing movement. They are actually one of the first groups of people that were so ready to support because they saw firsthand how it’s affecting them.
With climate strikes, I think they have the intended result. Well, our first goal for the climate strikes in general last year was to raise awareness because there is still that lack of awareness and there is that detachment that students know the impacts of the climate crisis from the scientific basis, but they don’t actually know and experience what’s happening and I mean… if they do, it’s very minimal.
And, farmers and fisherfolk and urban poor – they are the ones who are experiencing it firsthand, but they don’t have the scientific part of it, so it’s really connecting these two so that they learn from each other making sure that science and technology serves the people and the environment and making sure that education empowers not just the youth and not just the urban poor but really everyone that it can empower.
Kirti Manian [00:14:19]: It’s very interesting - the points you made about farmers and fisherfolk coming out because last year as well in India, it’s exactly the same thing happened. Farmers kind of marched and right into urban heartlands and it’s… it’s a very weird thing, like for someone living in a city, you don’t see a farmer, right.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:14:36]: Ya, ya, exactly.
Kirti Manian [00:04:38]: Unless you have an organic farm, it’s never going to happen you’re going to spot a farmer walking down the street and there’s of course a whole furore about oh my God, they are blocking traffic. I’m like that’s really not the most important thing. They are coming out here because they want to have their voice heard and that’s the most important thing, right?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:14:57]: Yeah.
Kirti Manian [00:04:58]: So, I think it’s very interesting because as urban dwellers you are aware of everything that revolves around agriculture and about how climate change is impacting people, but you don’t really think about it unless you actually see a farmer out on the street. You are saying “he must be in dire straits to actually come out and make a point so to speak.”
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:15:17]: Exactly, like the fact that they had to travel pretty far to get to the city it must be so important, and that’s something that really hits a lot of people as well. I think that we have to listen to them. They are already the ones coming here, right. We should listen to them.
Kirti Manian [00:15:34]: Ya. You were talking about trying to connect the dots between students and the people who are bearing the brunt of climate change in the Philippines. What role do you think social media has played in shaping this narrative about climate change? And, do you think it needs to change in any form or way?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:15:51]: Before the quarantine at least, this is how I used to think. There’s only so much that you can do online and on social media. You really have to experience and talk to them firsthand in person if you want to learn more about them, but definitely social media is a very powerful tool to raise awareness and to invite people to these integrations, to invite people to tell people that the farmers are here to spread the message of the farmers, but… and fisherfolk and all the indigenous people and people who are affected by the climate crisis, but it only reaches a certain extent because people on social media – they are also the ones in a way who are more privileged like not everyone is on social media and not everyone understands… even if we use our local language to explain the climate crisis it’s not even a good translation because it doesn’t make sense.
Like when we translate climate justice in our language it doesn’t even make that much sense like… because of the lack of climate education that’s happening. So, it’s all very tied together that you really need to raise more awareness and go to people and if they saw it online, it’s like let’s say someone from the urban poor who has access to Facebook sees climate justice online or even the translated version in Filipino of climate justice, they are not going to understand it right away and it’s so hard to explain something that intricate online. It’s something that you can explain quite easily in a conversation face-to-face when you talk to them and ask them about what their experiences are, but when it’s just a post online and you try to explain it. You can to an extent, but it’s also very limited.
Kirti Manian [00:17:31]: Right, and I happened to read that you used TikTok to generate climate change awareness and was that a successful experiment?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:17:39]: Yes actually. So, for people who are impacted directly with the climate crisis you can’t really reach them as much online but for students and youth, definitely TikTok, Facebook, Twitter, it’s a very powerful tool. Especially TikTok since it’s a new platform that a lot of people are interested in... like a lot of the youth are there so that’s why we have to make sure we are aware the youth are if that makes sense.
Kirti Manian [00:18:03]: Yes, absolutely.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:18:04]: So, TikTok is actually a very nice platform to have it because you can do so much with it. You can have like very informational posts and it’s only like 15 seconds to 60 seconds. You know, it’s not that long. Of course, it’s still very limited because it’s such a short time, but it’s enough to peak people’s interest so that they search more so that they are willing to learn more.
Kirti Manian [00:18:28]: You’ve mentioned this concept of using Tagalog versus speaking in English or even just translation. Do you find that actually speaking in your local tongue, is that a better medium or do you think English actually kind of cuts across everything? I am just curious.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:18:45]: So, when talking on social media, we usually use English just because the people who are on social media can understand English and it’s a lot easier to explain the climate crisis in English to the people on social media, but if we are going to the people who are affected first hand by the climate crisis, we usually use Filipino or a mixture of Filipino and English, mostly Filipino and we’ll use like… certain terms like sea level rising or climate crisis in English just because it’s… it’s a lot shorter because if you had to translate it, it would be like 3-4 words.
Kirti Manian [00:19:21]: Right, okay, got that. You’ve talked about Covid-19 already, but are there lessons to be learnt from the fight against Covid-19 that we can apply to the broader spectrum of climate change?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:19:33]: Ya, definitely. It’s actually something climate activists have been saying even before Covid-19, but I’m really hoping that because of Covid-19 the government actually finally realizes it that first we have to listen to experts from the field and have to have science-backed policies because clearly that’s not, in the Philippines at least, they were not doing that with the climate crisis and they are not doing that with the Covid-19 crisis.
We have to prioritize the marginalized sectors and people and not profit otherwise, let’s say with the Covid-19 crisis, because they are starting to prioritize profit right now, businesses are opening, but since we didn’t have mass testing or we didn’t have contact tracing or anything like that, more and more people are getting sick and because of that the quarantine and the lockdown guidelines are easing up, but it’s not because of science. It’s not because we are getting better. It’s because businesses and private owners are starting to complain and say that we need to open up again.
The people who are getting affecting by it the most are of course the workers. Another thing that we should learn from Covid-19, I think or this experience at least is just how powerful social media can be. So, I still believe that being in person and being with them directly is so so much more powerful and useful, but we’ve gotten to be very creative because of the lockdown – like we had to explore new ways to be able to still connect the dots from people who are affected firsthand by the climate crisis and by the youth and by students.
Like we were able to find out that we can have videos, these webinars and find ways… like find really creative ways to still connect the dots in the meantime that we can’t meet them face-to-face. Another lesson that Covid-19 has brought about is just how bad the system is - like our health system which is tied to our overall system, our overproduction, our attitude towards crises and pandemics – this is all something that we will be experiencing again with the climate crisis if we don’t do anything.
So, I am really hoping that world leaders learn from the mistakes they’ve done with the Covid-19 crisis and apply that to the climate crisis before it’s too late. Even if they’ve been having these mistakes with the climate crisis for so long, hopefully this Covid-19 crisis will really wake them up to show them that we can’t have this anymore.
Kirti Manian [00:22:11]: Which brings me to my… the next big thing that’s happening right now which is race and race is a topic that’s something… that’s gripped everyone’s attention across the world. Do you think there are inherent connections between race and climate change?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:22:24]: Ya, definitely, because usually people of color and biracial people – they are also the ones who are in a lower socioeconomic class and because of that it makes them more vulnerable to the climate crisis. An example in the US where the Black Lives Matter and the racial justice movement is very very strong right now, and the US polluters – fossil fuel industries and mining industries are more likely to be located near communities of people of color and of biracial communities or the lower socioeconomic classes just because it’s easier to keep them quiet and to pay them off and you can say that you are providing jobs but they don’t realize that even though they are getting jobs from these polluters, their health is being sacrificed so much and because of the health issues that they are experiencing because of the polluters and they try to look for like help from hospitals and stuff because the healthcare system isn’t even accessible to people of the lower socioeconomic classes and people of biracial and people of color, it’s just a cycle that they get sick because of the polluters and they can’t get help for the sickness that they are getting because these polluters are also usually the people in power.
Kirti Manian [00:23:50]: Right, which brings me to my next big question. COP26 happens in Glasgow next year. What are your expectations in terms of climate activism? Are you expecting anything from it at all?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:24:06]: Honestly with how COP25 went, I’m not super hopeful and positive about COP26, but I am still… like a lot of us climate activists are still demanding for actual changes. We definitely need a binding agreement because the Paris Agreement although it’s… it’s not bad but the thing with it is it doesn’t actually have the capacity to enforce the NDCs by countries. You just have to trust them on their word and what you’ve seen with world leaders lately and in the past, their word doesn’t really amount to much when it comes to being faced with losing money.
So, my expectations are low, but my ambitions are high if that makes sense like we are demanding for actual change, for actual promises that will be met for more ambitious plans, but I also know that that’s not going to happen just with them alone in a room. Social civic society is going to have that demand it from them and remind them every minute during COP for them to actually listen and for it to actually get through their heads that this needs to happen.
It’s going to be up to the people to remind them, to demand from them, to demand accountability and responsibility from them for any promising plans to actually happen.
Kirti Manian [00:25:32]: Ever since COP25, I’ve heard this often enough that Brazil, Australia and US were the chief culprits of… kind of COP25 going down the drain, so I’m really hoping that the same loop doesn’t happen again for next year.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:25:47]: Ya, exactly.
Kirti Manian [00:25:48]: Touch wood on that. Do you think we need to be climate alarmists? Do you think that would wake the world up like crazy scary figures and facts… Do you think that was going to wake people up into realizing that this is imminent and it’s happening now?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:26:02]: The thing is we don’t even need to be climate alarmists because the science is already alarming enough, right. I mean when you think climate alarmists, you would think that it means scaring people with crazy facts and numbers, but the thing is the crazy facts and numbers are real. It’s actually happening and they should be alarmed already and if showing them and really repeating them over and over and over again even if scientists have already done this, if the youth needs to do this over and over again for them to wake up and to do something then that’s something that we should do.
As long as we make sure that everything we are saying is still again backed by science and backed by facts which it is. I mean at this point, it’s not even being called a climate alarmist anymore I think. It’s more of a climate realist like you have to face the fact and - even thinking positive, I don’t know how you can spin to say that the science is wrong when scientists have said again and again for years now, not just in the past, like they’ve said it since like 20-30 years ago that something needs to change. We need systemic changes. Individual lifestyle changes aren’t enough like that’s what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report 1.5 already said. We need systemic change and if that’s not enough to wake them up, if we need to keep reminding them of this, that we need to like go on the streets and yell at them, then that’s what we have to do.
Kirti Manian [00:27:32]: And my last question then is what do you think we… we need to do to save the planet and what would your call to action be then?
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:27:40]: Definitely my call to action and what we need to do to save the planet is to really unite all over the world so this problem that we are facing, this culprit that we are facing is a global problem. It’s something that’s happening all over the world and it’s something that will affect everyone in the world, so we really need to face it together around the world. We need to unite with each other and the international community needs to really work on making sure that the voices from the Global South and from marginalized sectors are amplified even more and we are listening to these people because they are the ones who are affected by this the most.
We need collective action and it has to youth-led, I think because we are the ones, to be a cliché, who will inherit the world and we do not want to inherit a world that is burning and countries that are sinking like I do not want a Philippines – we have like over 7000 islands and in 50 years that might be, like I don’t know 5000 or less because of the climate crisis and that’s not what we want.
We need to band together and we need to call out the carbon majors that are contributing the most to the climate crisis historically and currently, and they have the greater responsibility to solve this climate crisis and governments of the world should live up to their mandate of serving the people and they will only be able to do that if they decide to protect the environment, to prioritize people over profit.
If we stop and transition from a global system that’s full of greed and fueled by profit into a system that plans and meets base and actually considers what majority of the people need instead of the elite few.
Kirti Manian [00:29:24]: Thank you so much Mitzi. Everything you said is… holds true and I really really hope that the future you inherit in that sense is not something that is a dark and scary one, and instead it’s hopeful, so thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you on our podcast.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan [00:29:39]: Thank you so much Kirti. Thank you.
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