Climate activist Marinel Ubaldo: “We can’t wait for more disasters before we take action”
The 24-year-old witnessed the devastation caused by climate change first hand in the Philippines, when her village lost everything during Super Typhoon Haiyan. As COP26 continues, she's calling for the Global North to take action now.
A large part of Marinel Ubaldo’s childhood in the Philippines was like a scene from a movie.
“I grew up in a very beautiful environment. I would pick seashells at the beach and sell them to other people. I would catch fish with my father and swim in the sea”, she remembers. But each year, when tropical typhoons descended on Matarinao, her neighbourhood in the Eastern Samar province of Salcedo, everything would change. “Being born in that area in the Philippines is scary, especially with the natural disasters.”
As the years have gone by, the typhoons have become stronger, deadlier and more unpredictable, permanently affecting the lives of everyone living on the coast.
“The fishes migrate to deeper parts of the sea after typhoons, so it becomes more difficult to catch them,” says the 24-year-old climate activist. “Fishermen have to go to the Pacific in small boats, which is far more dangerous. But they have no other choice, they have to feed their families.”
Declared by Amnesty International in 2019 the country most at risk from the climate crisis, the Philippines is facing a number of life-threatening issues in real-time. Ubaldo says farmers don’t know which crops to plant, as the seasons all seem to have blended into one another. The sea is reaching people’s front yards, when years ago the coastline was a lot further back.
“The soil is eroding, and our beaches and our coastlines,” she says. “These are all the things I have personally observed.”
But it wasn’t until Super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the deadliest tropical cyclones ever recorded, struck the Philippines in 2013 that Ubaldo’s life changed forever. As their village was completely destroyed, her family were among the millions made homeless. The cyclone claimed over 6,300 lives and many people, including ones the climate activist knew, are still missing. “After almost eight years, we don’t know where their bodies are.”
Disappointed with her government’s response after the disaster, Ubaldo has since become a leading youth activist. She helped organise the first youth climate strike in the Philippines and has been involved in a number of high-profile protests all over the world.
But it’s very dangerous to be a climate activist in the Philippines. Twenty-nine “environmental defenders” were killed in the country last year alone. So the work Ubaldo is doing as a climate justice youth advisor for Greenpeace Philippines, and for an interfaith movement that advocates for the divestment of coal, poses a huge risk to her life.
As she visits Glasgow for COP26, THE FACE caught up with Ubaldo to find out what the Global North needs to do to help those already impacted by the climate crisis.
When did you start becoming aware of climate issues?
The first time I became aware of climate change was actually in 2012, when I had been advocating for children’s and women’s rights. I was delivering educational programmes to remote communities and schools to talk about the basics of climate change for an international NGO. But what was really life-changing for me was the Super Typhoon Haiyan, because I lived through the devastation. It made me realise that the topic of climate change, [something] that I was presenting as something that would happen in 50 or 100 years, was already happening now.
What was that experience like? And has it stayed with you?
We literally went back to zero. We were wet and cold for days, and didn’t have any food or water. Our community was trying to build back, but it was so hard because no one knew where to even start. All our relatives offered prayers for us because they thought that we were all dead.
What climate challenges are facing people in the Philippines right now?
On top of the physical disasters like the flooding, the storms, the loss of biodiversity and the wildfires, the actual disaster is the deprivation and violations of human rights. When there is a typhoon and everyone goes into the evacuation centre, there isn’t a [separate] room for just girls and boys. Everyone is in one room. And sometimes there is no electricity or a water source. There are usually reports of an increase in sexual assault and a lot of young people drop out of school because they need to support their families financially. Many of them are young girls who are sent out to the big cities to be housemaids.
How does it feel to be a climate activist in the Philippines, especially when it’s so dangerous?
[Being a climate activist in the Philippines, I have been] scared for my own safety, but I also think about all the things we have achieved so far and why we are still even here. As long as our country is still vulnerable, we should still fight. For me, it is a form of survival, but also being in this movement is being privileged. Not everyone has the time and capacity to be in this movement, because they have to work in order to feed their families.
When I have received anonymous threats and intimidation, at first I felt like I was being heard and I took it as a positive. I wasn’t scared until they tried to go for my family.
How important do you think COP26 will be?
During this year’s climate conference here in Glasgow, there’s so much at stake for the Philippines. If our leaders continue to delay climate actions that they have talked about at the conference at the community level, then I would say this COP is a failure. A lot of vulnerable communities are relying on the outcome of this conference, and I just hope that it’s not dominated by the North, as we already know that it’s not inclusive or equitable. Even now, with the measures set to support people from the Global South to actually attend COP26, there are so many restrictions that hinder people from going and participating.
How could the Global North change its approach to the climate crisis?
I do hope that those attending will still think about the people who are already affected by the climate crisis and what they could do for them. And not think about how they could profit through giving loans. I think [vulnerable] communities on the ground should be supported by grants. How can you help people who are already struggling in the form of a loan? For me, that isn’t a solution. I hope that issues on climate finance will actually be addressed.
When it comes to fighting the climate crisis, do you think the Global North is taking the events that are occurring in the Global South seriously?
I think people in the Global North are already starting to take the climate crisis more seriously because they’re being affected by it. I just really wish that they wouldn’t have to wait until they see that it’s already happening in their backyard. But we can’t wait until more disasters come to the Global North until we realise that we should take action.
What one piece of advice would you give to young people who are interested in taking action against the climate crisis?
Don’t ever underestimate your power to make a change. I know those are big words, but if you want to be part of the movement, you’re already a part of it. Every single one of us doing something for the environment is already a selfless move, because you’re not just doing that for yourself and your community. You’re doing it for us, the people who have already suffered from the brunt of the climate crisis.
What one thing could anyone do to help fight the climate crisis in your opinion?
If you can already register to vote, one simple way of doing climate action is to select the best leader who is an ally for the environment. If the government or the people in power actually take our demands seriously, then we are moving forward with our agenda, which is to prioritise climate action.
To support Marinel’s work, donate money to her fundraiser here