Amid the unrelenting heat and increased frequency in water and power interruptions, it’s impossible for the average Filipino not to notice something terribly wrong. Across the globe, environmental defenders are rallying to fight an impending climate catastrophe under a banner that says: Climate justice is peace.
To unpack what that unified call actually means, we spoke with activists Mitzi Tan and Alab Ayroso of Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines (YACAP), alliance of young individuals, youth organizations, and student councils fighting for climate justice.
YACAP was born in 2019 out of the need for a broad, youth-led climate movement to consolidate the surge of youth organizations across the country taking part in climate marches.
Tan currently serves as its international spokesperson while Ayroso is its national coordinator. Both convenors of the alliance, the pair came from its founding member organization Agham Youth.
Since its inception, YACAP’s leaders have inspired many and have become great friends with some of the leading voices of climate and social justice across the world such as Greta Thunberg. Tan’s been part of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty’s steering committee, received international awards, worked with various UN groups, became a UNICEF youth ambassador, spoken at high-level international spaces, and they even went viral when they spoke to King Charles III about the Oriental Mindoro oil spill.
Here’s how our conversation went.
What do we mean when we say climate justice?
Mitzi: Climate justice is recognizing that while we all contribute to the climate crisis; there are countries, entities, and individuals more responsible and so have a bigger duty to address the crisis. These are the richest of the Global North countries, fossil fuel companies, multinational companies, and the richest one percent in the Global South as well.
It’s recognizing that the climate crisis is not just an environmental issue but one that is rooted in the systemic injustice of this imperialist, colonialist profit-oriented system. The latest UN climate reports have shown that colonialism, historically and currently, exacerbates the vulnerability of countries and communities.
Climate justice is also about building a better world where no one is left behind. As the climate crisis exacerbates and is exacerbated by all the socioeconomic issues, especially class inequality, then climate justice is about liberation of all peoples from all oppression and injustice. It is about being safe and joyful. It is about having a community where we can grow and live in unity with each other and nature. It is recognizing that we are not separate from each other and nature—and ensuring that everyone across the world has access to this community.
What are some of the most devastating conservation threats and climate-related issues in the country today?
Mitzi: According to Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index, the Philippines is the fourth most climate-impacted country in the past 20 years. We experience life-threatening and life-changing super typhoons that cause storm surges and floods that wipe out entire communities. We are experiencing droughts and heatwaves that are impacting both our health and our food security as small farmers struggle to adapt to the climate crisis, especially without government support.
Now, we are also seeing land reclamation projects across the Philippines, which both impact marine biodiversity, our ability to adapt to the climate crisis, crucial carbon sinks that help mitigate the climate crisis, and the lives and livelihoods in coastal communities. We also have large-scale mining operations that continue to plunder our natural resources at the expense of, again, biodiversity, carbon sinks, and Indigenous Peoples. We see the same trend with megadams.
All these environmental issues would make you think that our country would listen to and prioritize our environmental defenders—our small fisherfolk, small farmers, and Indigenous Peoples, and yet we’re also the third most dangerous country for defenders in the past decade according to Global Witness.
Alab: It is angering to see how our supposed national defense is one of the destructive threats to our biodiversity and environment. The recent bombings in the Cordillera and Cagayan region are most damaging to the endemic wildlife and ecology we have.
How urgent is climate action judging by the changes in the Philippines’ climate and ecosystems over the past years?
Mitzi: The climate crisis is exacerbating many of the issues the Philippines is already facing—health issues, especially respiratory diseases and vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria, food insecurity, high prices and inflation, unstable livelihood for small farmers and small fisherfolk, harsh working conditions for the working class, [terrible] living conditions for the urban poor, and mental health issues especially among the youth.
Alab: Our farmers used to know when to plant crops since the weather patterns used to be predictable. But now there’s so much to factor in, along with the exploitation they experience with high land rent, increasing debt, and high prices of daily goods. Climate change may not be the exact reason for their suffering, but hunger is exacerbated by the changing climate.
Scientists have told our leaders time and time again that we need to cut our emissions by 2030 or else we will reach a point of no return and the climate will continue to drastically change.
Mitzi: We have had one of the highest numbers of extreme weather events globally—that means our generation and the generations younger than us have been born into the climate crisis. Our national leaders need to urgently prioritize pro-people adaptation contextualized to the different ecosystems and realities of the different communities we have in the Philippines. The government needs to have consultations across all sectors to ensure that adaptation and mitigation efforts we have center the voices of the most marginalized.
Mitzi: We need empowering climate education across all sectors, but especially the youth to ensure that we are able to respond to the crisis and push climate policies and be involved in consultations actively. We need to stop all new and expansion of fossil fuel industries here in the Philippines and internationally call for the phase out of fossil fuels completely and push for a just transition.
Describe the type of work that YACAP is involved in.
Mitzi: Our five points of unity are Urgency of Climate Action, Climate Justice, Youth-Led Collective Action, Defend Environmental Defenders, and System Change. We are also part of the Fridays for Future international movement that organizes Global Climate Strikes focusing on different campaigns and demands.
A big focus of our work nationally is raising awareness about the climate crisis through talks in schools, gigs, fashion shows, and basic mass integrations where we bring students to grassroots groups and frontline communities to support them and learn from their campaigns, struggles, and how they’re impacted by the climate crisis.
We create climate education modules contextualized to the experience of these grassroots groups to empower them with climate education so they can use this to strengthen their calls for their campaigns. We talk to members of the government to push our calls for climate justice. In times of distress, we also organize relief operations to help communities battling climate impacts.
Any personal anecdotes as a climate activist that really put things into perspective for you?
Mitzi: It wasn’t until 2017 when I was able to talk to a Lumad Indigenous leader in UP Diliman as part of Lakbayan that I understood the need for environmental activism. He was telling us about how they were displaced, harassed, militarized, and killed—all for protecting the land, the forests, their ancestral homes. Then ever so simply, he shrugged, chuckled and said, “That’s why we have no choice but to fight back.”
That year, I was trying to decide whether or not I wanted to be an activist and that conversation burst my bubble of privilege. I realized I needed to join the fight for our planet, for and with the people. Activism is a life that we choose every day because we have no choice but to fight back. In 2019, I became a full-time climate activist and Chad Booc was one of the people who encouraged me to pursue and stay on this path. Last year, he was killed and accused of being a terrorist when in reality he was a volunteer teacher for the Lumad Indigenous schools in the rural areas.
What makes solidarity in climate action from women and queer folk important?
Mitzi: The climate crisis isn’t just an environmental issue. It’s a symptom of the broken profit-oriented system we have today that prioritizes the greed of the few over the well-being of the majority. Women and queer folk are among those who are most vulnerable to the climate crisis as it intensifies and amplifies other socioeconomic issues that people already experience such as gender injustice.
Alab: Women and queer folk have to fight extra harder to adapt and receive the aid we deserve. Mothers are the first line of defense in communities when it comes to evacuation as they ensure their children and households’ safety.
Mitzi: Without solidarity in climate action and leadership from women and queer folk, especially from the economically marginalized sectors and frontline communities, we will not be able to solve the climate crisis. Most in power today are white, rich, cishet, old men who will never fully understand the struggles of the marginalized and will never truly act in our favor since that will take away and threaten their power. They will always be missing a key perspective that is needed and crucial to ensure that everyone is safe from the climate crisis.
How can we help?
Mitzi: Collective action is key. Empower yourself with knowledge and look for groups and organizations to build a community with, learn from, and grow with. Organize wherever you are. Use whatever skills you already have to raise awareness about the climate crisis—tell your friends, your family, your enemies, everyone.
Alab: Informing ourselves and others about the issues of climate change closes the gap of understanding on why people take actions to the streets. There’s no better place and time to find ourselves but now with the people that care about the world. Joining YACAP or any organization and taking action will make a difference. Together we are more powerful.