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Asian and Pacific Islands are leading the environmental movement

27 May 2021, 15:36 UTC 6 min read

Many Asian countries and Pacific Islands have lived in harmony with nature and cared for the planet well before sustainability became a trend. However, the mainstream environmental movement often focuses on Global North countries and their contributions to climate action.

The climate emergency will affect the global community, but the effects will not be distributed equally. Of the top countries most at risk from the negative effects of climate change, 50% of them are Asian and Pacific Islands regions, including Fiji, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Japan, and India. According to a recent study, Southeast Asia will potentially face more severe consequences than the rest of the world. And Pacific Islands are face-to-face with rising sea levels, erosion of coastal areas, increased droughts, and drastic weather patterns.

As the communities that are most vulnerable to climate change and most reliant on nature to survive, Asian countries and the Pacific Islands center environmental justice and focus on systemic change to value people and planet. Their commitments to climate action are deeply rooted in culture and tradition. Many grassroots organizations in these regions have already developed community-based solutions to build local economies and lead climate adaption strategies that blend tradition and science.

It’s vital that we amplify these voices; they have the solutions we need to solve the climate crisis and it’s past time the wider climate community listens.

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander month, we’re highlighting a few Asian and Pacific Islander activists, grassroots organizations, and regions who are making invaluable contributions to the climate movement.

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  • Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet and the Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands. She has received international attention for her poetry, including performing her piece, ‘Dear Matafele Peinem’ at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014. In this piece, she shed light on the global climate crisis, particularly on the rising sea levels that directly threaten her home. She is also the Co-Founder of Jo-Jikum, a youth environmentalist non-profit.

  • Varshini Prakash is a climate activist who became aware of the climate crisis when she was 11, while watching coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She is the Executive Director and one of the co-founders of the Sunrise Movement, advocating for the Green New Deal and organized a protest to demand for the creation of a congressional task force to address climate change. In 2020, Varshini was named an adviser to President Biden’s climate task force and also serves as a board member of Climate Power 2020.

  • Aleta Baun, known as “Mama Aleta” and the Indonesian Avatar, is an Indonesian environmental activist that won the 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize for when she organized hundreds of local villagers to protest against the destruction of sacred forest land on Mutis Mountain on the island of Timor. She is a leader of the indigenous Mollo people, whose survival is intrinsically linked to natural resources, and now advocates for water security, land rights, and Indigenous Peoples’ natural resource management.

  • Sophia Li is a climate optimist, multimedia journalist, and film director. She aims to humanize issues such as the climate crisis and social justice. She currently serves as a board member of Slow Factory and Intersectional Environmentalist, and recently launched the first sustainability talk show with Céline Semaan called All of the Above.
Photo source: Asian Pacific Environmental Network


  • Asian Pacific Environmental Network works towards delivering environmental, social, and economic justice for all people, with a focus on Asian immigrants and refugee communities. They are building community-owned renewable energy resources to power neighborhoods and work with multiple generations of people of color communities that are often ignored.

  • Pacific Climate Warriors, also known as 350 Pacific, is a grassroots climate justice movement from the Pacific Island states. They address decision makers and demand for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, protect the Pacific Islands and their culture, and marine habitats from climate change.

  • Chicago Asian American for Environmental Justice centers those who are most impacted by environmental injustice and aims to provide a space for Asian Americans to have a voice in the climate movement.

  • Jo-Jikum, meaning “your home” in Marshallese, is a youth environmentalist non-profit co-founded by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. It aims to empower youth in the Marshall Islands to seek innovative solutions to the climate crisis and become changemakers to help their islands.


  • Hawaii has long been leading the fight against climate change in the US and became an Under2 Coalition member in 2018. As Governor Ige mentioned in the Biden 100 Days event, Hawaii recognizes the economic and environmental costs of relying on fossil fuels. It was the first state to pass a 100% renewable energy goal back in 2015, and 16 other states have followed its lead. This year, Hawaii became the first state to declare a climate emergency.

    As part of its plans to improve the climate, Hawaii is taking forward plans for large-scale reforestation. It has declared its support for climate-friendly land use and agriculture, with a commitment to the 30 by 30 initiative to support wildlife and Indigenous communities, while improving the state’s ability to produce food.

  • West Kalimantan is one of five Indonesian members of the Under2 Coalition. As a state with a significant coastline, West Kalimantan is particularly vulnerable to erosion and severe weather events. However, one of the main drivers of environmental change here is deforestation, with large areas of land being cleared for development. In response, the government recently introduced a regulation to encourage private companies in land-based industries to conserve a minimum of 7% of the natural forest within their business areas.

    A good example of local commitment to climate improvements is Nanga Lauk Village, where residents have set an ambitious target of reducing CO2 equivalent emissions by 1,512 tonnes through their 25 year village forest management project. Alongside climate benefits, community participation in forest management contributes to meeting United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through supporting local economic activities, protecting carbon stores and looking after biodiversity. Animal counts undertaken during patrols in the village forest found a rich variety of wildlife, including as many as 326 individual birds, 102 mammals and 25 reptiles.

    In 2019, West Kalimantan hosted a delegation from fellow Under2 Coalition member, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, as part of the Future Fund initiative. Members worked together on opportunities for improving local energy efficiency and locating potential sources of renewable energy for future supply. Best practices developed through this project and in Nanga Lauk Village are being used as models for future climate initiatives.

  • Governor Yang Seung-jo of Chungnam Province, South Korea, is the Under2 Coalition’s South East Asia co-chair and has been providing leadership across a range of urgent climate issues.

    As part of its response to COVID-19, Chungnam announced a New Deal last year, which allocates around three trillion KRW ($2.5 billion) to 31 new projects that will strengthen the provision of green energy. It is part of Chungnam’s commitment to transition away from coal - a significant step from a region that is home to 30 of the 60 coal-fired power plants in South Korea and accounts for a quarter of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. This year, the Governor voiced his support for South Korea’s announcement to stop sourcing coal overseas.

    Chungnam was also the first East Asian local government to declare a climate emergency as it called for collective climate action across the region. The Governor has called upon all states and regions worldwide to adopt net zero emissions targets.

Asian and Pacific Islander climate activists, organizations, and regions must be included in the movement if we are to ensure we are building an inclusive and just future for all. They need to be celebrated every day, not just in the month of May.