Interview with Climate Justice Activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan
"We have no choice but to fight"
Mitzi Jonelle Tan is a full-time activist, convenor and international spokesperson of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), and a force to be reckoned with. As a child growing up in Metro Manila, Mitzi was always passionate about the environment. After learning about the ozone layer, greenhouse gases and the environmental and health impacts of smoking, Mitzi’s early memories are of lecturing strangers on the negative effective of smoking and, in one case, going so far as to throw her great uncle’s cigarettes away.
Despite her early education on climate change and living with its consequences – she regularly completed her homework using candlelight after typhoons left her city without electricity – at the time, she did not realise the two were linked. Mitzi’s journey into activism began as a student. Although at one point her dad had also been an activist, Mitzi admits that the stigma surrounding activism in the Philippines led to her initially hiding her involvement from her parents. Activism and protest are often associated with terrorism and there are fresh concerns that a new Terror Law will directly target the work of climate change activists.
It was a meeting with an Indigenous leader that solidified Mitzi’s commitment to her work. During their discussions on the persecutions faced by his community, and in response to being asked why they continue to fight, he simply shrugged and said, ‘We have no choice but to fight’. These words stuck with Mitzi and made her realise that although she had the privilege to choose another path, she felt there were no excuses for not joining the fight against climate change.
Understanding around climate change in the Philippines is relatively limited, Mitzi explains. Although people may understand that typhoons are associated with climate change, there is less understanding of the fossil fuel industry or warming temperatures which cause them. Mitzi sees her job – and the job of YACAP – as being there to connect the dots. Founded in 2019, YACAP is a youth-led, nationwide alliance of organisations, individuals and student councils that advocates for immediate global climate action. The formation of YACAP provided one of the first opportunities for young people to get involved with climate change activism and, while it works with a handful of politicians, it is primarily an organisation designed to apply pressure on government.
As well as working for YACAP, Mitzi also campaigns internationally. I ask Mitzi to touch upon a point she made during the Race & Health ‘Envisioning Environmental Equity: Climate Justice is Racial Justice’ webinar, in which she discussed racism within global climate activism. She explains that colourism, rather than racism, is more of an issue in the Philippines. Mitzi talks about experiencing racial micro-aggressions when working with international colleagues but not recognising them as such until days later, the feelings that come with often being the only person of colour in a team and the associated sense of responsibility to call racism out.
There is no denying that the ‘face’ of youth climate activism is both white and representative of the global north, which some see as problematic given the extraordinary amount of work being done by young activists of colour and those representing more marginalised communities. Mitzi recognises this and although she acknowledges there are issues, she says there has been a marked improvement in the way the global climate change community has worked together over the past year.
Looking to the future, Mitzi would ideally like to see a world in which there is no need for climate change activism. However, in the more likely scenario that her activism is still needed, Mitzi envisions herself living with the fishing communities most vulnerable to climate change and developing the work that YACAP has already started. What she most enjoys most about working with these communities is the transfer of knowledge between them, with each educating the other on sustainable practices and the best ways to work with, not against, the environment. For now, Mitzi will continue in climate activism, applying pressure to those in power and working to ensure the intersectional growth of the climate movement.