COVID-19 and Youth Climate Change Activism in Myanmar

Pan Nu Zaw discusses the elusiveness of youth climate change activism and proposes steps to start a movement.

COVID-19 has called attention to the vulnerabilities and fragility of the status quo in Myanmar. It has prompted new conversations around public health, labor rights, migration, and rather unexpectedly, climate change. People inhaled the freshest air in decades, witnessed clear skies and saw faraway mountain tops that were thought to be out of sight. Wild animals came around people’s houses. This is a list of other reminders of how far modern life has pushed into nature. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how deeply everyday life and business feeds climate change in Myanmar and across the planet.

One would think that this revelation about climate change would motivate a new wave of action and advocacy, particularly from the youth whose lives will be deeply impacted for years and decades to come. However, it is not clear whether there is ample awareness and agency to elevate youth climate change activism. Climate change remains a peripheral topic for youth in Myanmar for a range of reasons, most notably, because so many other concerns feel more pressing. If you have to face and overcome more immediate concerns on a daily basis, climate change becomes an afterthought, despite the obvious seriousness of its immediate and long-term consequences. This moment, during the pandemic, offers an opportunity to transform the status quo and establish climate change as a key issue on the youth agenda.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, Myanmar is the second most climate change-affected country in the world. The current state of climate change-related impacts in Myanmar is nearly the worst in the world, and this has to be dealt with urgently if Myanmar is to achieve the sustainable development we seek. Since Myanmar has prioritized development, the country has suffered increasing environmental degradation. As a result of all of this, Myanmar is very prone to extreme weather events, one of the many consequences of climate change. From 1998 to 2018, there were 55 extreme weather incidents resulting in 7,052 deaths, as per a report described in the 2020 Global Climate Risk Index. These are the highest numbers in the world. To reduce suffering from looming disasters and improve resiliency, both communities and the government need to coordinate and prepare to prevent, respond to, and recover from climate change-related crises. Myanmar was clearly not prepared for Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The question is whether lessons were learned from the Nargis tragedy about the importance of risk reduction in disaster prone areas.

The youth will need to be a catalyst of climate change action in Myanmar. Youth make up over one-third of Myanmar’s population. As part of a project on life and politics in the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor developed by URBANIZE, in-depth interviews were carried out during the 2019-2020 period with students, medical professionals, teachers, NGO and government staff to assess current levels of youth awareness and challenges and opportunities to elevate youth climate change action. The findings from these interviews reflected those reported by the 2016, 2017, and 2020 U-Report Polls of around 4,000 Myanmar youths: most young people in Myanmar are aware of climate change and recognize changes in their environment––over 90 percent according to the U-Report Poll––and many acknowledge its importance. Yet, youth climate change activism in Myanmar remains peripheral. There are a number of reasons for this.

While youth are aware of climate change, there remains an awareness gap. They rarely recognize how their daily behaviors make climate change worse. Thus, they may feel as though climate change is an issue that they cannot influence. And limited or absent governmental and NGO action on climate change, whether that be through research, campaigns, or events, means that even interested youth struggle to obtain information on key issues. The government does have policies, strategies, and action plans on climate change in place, but they are not promoted or readily accessible for the general public; students, youths and people in the community. Most interview respondents assumed that Myanmar had no such policies, strategies, or action plans.

The existing Myanmar Climate Change Action Plan 2016 – 2030 is rarely talked about, in part, because it did not include civil society organizations in the designing or implementing the plan. Informants from NGOs want greater inclusivity, but lack opportunities for more engagement.  A respondent from a government department recognized this problem in general terms:

“In Myanmar, people have general knowledge on climate change. They are aware of weather changes in their environment and feel the effects of floods, overheating, and droughts. But they don’t have a systematic knowledge of how and why those situations are happening. Even staff inside government organizations lack that level of understanding. There is also little awareness about strategies, policies, and action plans. The whole population and system needs a lot of a climate change education.”

In interviews, government departments cited a number of challenges that prevent effective climate change education and action. The government lacks adequate capacity, budget, and technology to promote climate resiliency. Coordination and collaboration between departments and sectors is lacking. And then, there is a range of broader challenges that, as government informants explained, complicate climate change responses such as poverty, education levels, migration, and civil unrest.  

NGOs that directly or indirectly work on climate change face their own challenges. Common hurdles include a lack of funding, low public awareness, barriers to government engagement, and general disinterest as attention understandably concentrates on peace, poverty, political transition, terrorism, rule of law, and issues like employment, Rakhine State, and LGBTQI concerns. Even if a youth has been directly affected by something like droughts or floods, their focus remains on their jobs and the well-being of their families and community.

There is also the technical challenge of distributing information on climate change. Climate change activists around the world rely heavily on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, and so on as a key to raising awareness and prompting behavioral changes. Myanmar has started using those platforms, but they do not yet provide a functional or reliable way to target affected youth at scale. Both the government and NGOs have targeted women as key stakeholders on climate change, but not the youth. In the end, there is a general apathy that will have to be comprehensively overcome to prompt purposeful youth-centric climate change action.

A report entitled “Impacts of Climate Change on Youth, Peace, and Security” underscores that youth bulges will increase the absolute number of people vulnerable to climate impacts. Youth are prone to experiencing poor physical and mental health issues, poorer quality diets, worse self-reported health, and lower levels of school attendance as a result of food insecurity. This will complicate a range of social, biological, and psychological transitions as they shift to adulthood. For many countries, the percentage of out-of-school youth is unacceptably high and this will be made worse by climate change. Extreme weather events cause poverty which make students’ families unable to afford school fees. Such events sometimes destroy school buildings or turn schools into shelters which make children away from school temporarily, or permanently for some. None of this takes into account the type of large-scale climate-related disasters that Myanmar has experienced and is prone to. These disasters can have long-standing social, political, and economic consequences that youth will spend their lifetime overcoming.

The list of challenges is long. But Myanmar also has advantages and opportunities to spark youth climate change action. Myanmar’s youth are incredibly resilient and active. They have lived through military rule and built immeasurable social and political skills. Myanmar’s youth are quick to initiate action and lead when they are inspired to do so. According to survey results, university students from the big cities studied, including Yangon, Mandalay and Taunggyi, have the requisite awareness and capacity to create local change and expand these efforts in time. Several organizations such as Conyet Create, Spectrum, and MYEO have campus-focused climate change and environmental programs, and environmental studies have been introduced into several bachelor’s degrees. Myanmar’s private sector has put an emphasis on environmental protection as part of their sustainability programs, too, providing opportunities for new roles and activities in local companies (see, for example, FMI). And Myanmar has seen youth-led climate strikes. Climate change is increasingly a hot topic globally, which provides a pull for Myanmar’s youth. Select youth have translated documentary and TED talks into Burmese. There is youth action underway and many incentives in place. There are plenty of pathways available. International organizations and enterprises provide funding for sustainable projects as the interest on the issue has been increasing day by day. Some funding is only for members or alumni of specific programs, while some targets climate change enthusiasts (Green City and YSEALI Seeds for the Future, for example). Climate change talk shows, tree planting activities, recycling and upcycling projects, and various campaigns have been organized in different communities around the country both physically and virtually. But the entire equation needs to come together.

There is an onus on all parties to do their part in catalyzing youth climate change efforts. There is a need for greater collaboration within and between stakeholder groups. Youth themselves must take the initiative. But, government leadership is critical. In a country with so many all-consuming tasks, the government must take the initiative to create space and opportunities to make climate change a priority: to provide funding, to enact inclusive plans, to establish new regulations and uphold existing ones, to introduce formal and non-formal curriculum, and to provide a platform for youth to take the lead on climate change.

(Image courtesy of Pan Nu Zaw)

Pan Nu Zaw is a research enthusiast from Katha, Sagaing Region who is based in Mandalay. She is an experienced NGO professional who currently works at National Democratic Institute as a field coordinator. She wishes to thank Matthew Mullen at Article 30 and Mael Raynaud at Urbanize: Policy Institute for Urban and Regional Planning for their support in developing this article.