“I don’t need them to be touched by my story and I don’t need their pity. I need them to take action.”
In 2013, sixteen-year-old Marinel Sumook Ubaldo knew that life was changing at home, a quiet, seaside village around 1000 km southeast of Manila. Her fisherman father complained there was little to catch. It had grown too hot to be outside, even at 7 AM. Then, in November, came Super Typhoon Haiyan. Winds roaring 200 kph brought a 4.5 meter storm surge that swept inland, destroying everything in its path. Survivors were isolated for days without food and water, and spent months with no electricity or shelter. All that Marinel had owned was gone, and dead bodies were everywhere. (Through the Philippines, more than 6,300 perished.) Almost overnight, as she later put it, “I was forced to grow up.” The evidence was clear: Climate change, about which the teenager had been learning, was no abstract future threat. It was here, now, and creating a future for herself and her country required facing that fact head-on.
Today, Marinel, now 22, is a global activist for climate justice. She helped organize the Philippines’ first youth climate strike last May, and led the country’s climate mobilization in September, as part of the Global Climate Strike movement. She’s stood in protest in front of New York City’s Wall Street bull and Shell Oil’s Manila headquarters. And last year, Marinel testified as a community witness for the Philippines Commission on Human Rights investigation on corporate responsibility, and whether climate impacts can be considered violations of Filipinos’ rights to life, water, food, sanitation, housing and self-determination.
Once described as a “spiritual rainbow warrior,” she brings the voice of the local and marginalized to the world, demanding change, refusing to let citizens and governments of developed nations look away.
I had been a youth leader with Plan International, a development and humanitarian organization that advances child rights and equity for girls. So, I was already known in my community. I had been introduced to the basics of climate change in 2012, and was trained to be a facilitator. I would go into communities and schools to educate students and residents about the causes of climate change, its effects, the future and what we could do as a community to mitigate and adapt.
Although scientists say that Super Typhoon Haiyan was not a direct effect of climate change, it was exacerbated by it. I realized the future we had been talking about was now.
I had seen the hopelessness it caused – the struggle of my community and my family, the loss and destruction. I had seen the dead. I realized we should not just accept being vulnerable throughout our lives; we should not accept being only victims. We had the power and we had to do something. I did not want my family and community to suffer again this way. I went to university, and I continued to campaign and educate about climate change.
What were some of the ways you did that?
In some remote communities, most of the people are illiterate. So, our medium to convey information was in the form of a theatre recital. We also did a radio broadcast, about how climate change affects different aspects of our lives, including how it affects human, women’s and children’s rights.
In 2015, I was invited to address the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP21. It was my first international exposure. I talked of my experiences and asked that you “please think about us, think about the coming generations who will suffer because you did not make decisions in time.”
Did you feel heard? Do you feel heard now – in particular by people who haven’t themselves felt the effects of climate change?
I do feel they’ve heard me. The challenge is how to make them act. I don’t need them to be touched by my story and I don’t need their pity. I need them to take action. I refuse to accept that we are just victims.
In 2015, Greenpeace, disaster survivors, and Philippine community organizations submitted their complaint to the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines against 47 large fossil fuel and cement companies over their role in “human-induced climate change.” Why did you join this action?
A positive result from that complaint could be the basis for other actions in the future. We want acknowledgement from the major carbon emitters that they are responsible for what they have done to the community, the people, the marginalized. They must be held accountable for their business practices.
And to the people of the US and other countries in the developed world who continue to drag their feet on carbon emissions, you say –?
I want them to change their ways.
The Philippines has been called one of the deadliest countries for land and environmental defenders. Do you feel threatened?
There are times that I’m really afraid for my own safety, and even more concerned for the safety of my family. Environmental defenders are warned “If you continue to push, you will regret it.” But if we stop, they will feel that they have won.
What have you learned from the other youth climate activists that you’ve met?
They fuel me to continue what I am doing because I know that I’m not alone.
Do you feel hopeful that we will succeed in the fight against climate change?
If I base my answer on statistics and science, it’s hard to be positive. We can’t reverse what’s already happening. But I believe that if people will unite and leaders have the political will, we can stop the change from becoming worse.
And you will intend to be part of that struggle?
Of course. I’m ready to die for it, ready to fight no matter what. This is the purpose of my life.