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Estella Ho on climate justice and intersectionality

Estella Ho on climate justice and intersectionality

Estella Ho, a volunteer at SG Climate Rally and sustainability manager at Zalora

Just as this year’s IPCC report has shared, climate change is very real. Dubbed a ‘code red’ for humanity by scientists, it lays out the fact that our environmental situation is bleak, and the time to fix it is fast running out. It’s going to take significant action from the top down, governments, industry, brands and us as citizens, to change the way we create, consume and perceive the world. 

On the ground, many of those leading the change when it comes to climate change awareness are younger people. Which makes sense, considering millennials and Gen Z will be the generation disproportionately affected by the crisis—just like Estella Ho. In Singapore, SG Climate Rally, which she is involved in running, was the first landmark event to grow public awareness and demand climate action from the government. We caught up with the environmentalist to learn more about her green journey, her view on local climate policy and why any conversation around climate justice needs to be intersectional. 

Estella Ho, volunteer at SG Climate Rally and sustainability advocate holding books that have inspired and informed her green journey

Tell us what shaped your passion for environmentalism. 

My green journey started in my last year of university in 2019. I began reading more about the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, as well as the ideologies and politics of exploitation that lie at the roots of the crisis. This led to a paradigm shift in the way I view the world. I was convinced that what was needed to limit global heating to 1.5 °C and avoid the worst impacts of climate change was radical, systemic change. 

But what spurred me to act was not just engaging with facts or the literature; it was also the deep grief and anger I felt about the injustice of the situation. Those who are least responsible for climate change will be the ones most impacted by it, while those who are most to blame for the crisis are often privileged enough to evade responsibility. Already, we are seeing how physical climate impacts such as more frequent and intense extreme weather events (droughts, floods, typhoons, etc.) are devastating vulnerable populations who have lived in relative harmony with the natural world. On the other hand, powerful institutions and industries who contribute extensively to human-caused climate change and have the capacity to mitigate it continue to prize profit at the cost of our collective safety and wellbeing.

“Those who are least responsible for climate change will be the ones most impacted by it, while those who are most to blame for the crisis are often privileged enough to evade responsibility.”

How did this make you take action?

It motivated me to search for an outlet to translate these emotions into action. First, I started to pivot my career aspirations to sustainability, and I have worked in the field since graduating. I also started looking at more ground-up and unconventional platforms for climate action. When I heard that a group of university students were planning to organise Singapore’s first ever physical climate rally at Hong Lim Park—the only space in Singapore where public protests are allowed—to demand bold climate action from the government, I immediately reached out to offer my time and energy to the cause. This went on to be known as the SG Climate Rally and I have been with the movement ever since.

Tell us more about SG Climate Rally. How has your mission evolved over the years? 

We started by demanding ambitious climate policy from the government. Most importantly, we insisted that they shift the narrative from focusing the responsibility on individuals to the corporations who have the power to effect systemic and structural change. After all, industry makes up 60% of Singapore’s national carbon footprint. The petrochemical industry alone accounts for 45% of that total; households make up only about 6%. This means that if we’re truly serious about mitigating the climate crisis, the government needs to begin the transition to a low or zero-carbon/net zero economy, and the pollutive activities on Jurong Island do not have a place in this future.

Since then, we’ve broadened our focus to emphasise on a just transition and intersectional climate justice. By “just transition”, we mean that the cost associated with a transition to a net zero economy should not fall on the ordinary person, especially vulnerable communities. For instance, there should be adequate and timely socio-economic interventions in place to support workers who are currently employed by the petrochemical industry in Singapore and help them transition to jobs in more sustainable sectors or industries. They should not have their livelihoods compromised by this transition. 

What is intersectional climate justice and why does it matter?  

Intersectional climate justice is another concept that is closely tied to a just transition. Simply put, climate justice is more than just remedying the injustices that stem from the unequal climate impacts I mentioned earlier. Intersectional climate justice is about understanding the types of and extent to which these injustices are levied on different groups by virtue of overlapping social identities (race, nationality, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) and the layers of vulnerability they produce. Viewing the climate crisis through the lens of intersectionality also enables us to recognise the interconnectedness of the various social and environmental crises we see today. This makes the case for us to tackle these crises at their root in an equitable and holistic manner. 

“Viewing the climate crisis through the lens of intersectionality also enables us to recognise the interconnectedness of the various social and environmental crises we see today.”

Singapore’s first in-person climate rally was held in Hong Lim Park in 2019, a significant milestone. What changes have you seen in terms of manifesto and legislation since then? Where does this need to go? 

Since the 2019 rally, we’ve seen a step-change in the political leadership’s emphasis on the urgency and severity of the climate crisis. Some key announcements include the government’s enhancement of Singapore’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which are country-level declarations of contributions to global climate action, and the launch of the Singapore Green Plan, a compilation of existing and new sustainability-related targets to be met by 2030. What’s more, during the Climate Change Motion in February 2021, a Worker’s Party Member of Parliament used the term “just transition” for the first time in parliamentary history, to bring attention to the need for policy interventions to help enterprises and workers transition to a green economy. 

But while these are all welcome developments and wins for the local climate movement, they are simply insufficient to match the level of ambition needed to limit global heating to 1.5°C. Singapore’s government still hasn’t laid out a clear plan for a just transition to a net zero economy. In fact, our enhanced NDC targets to increase our national carbon emissions until around 2030 and the achievement of net zero will only occur “as soon as viable in the second half of the century”, which is out of step with the decarbonisation pathways laid out by the latest science. 

What’s more, the Singapore government’s current approach to sustainability does not reflect an understanding of intersectional climate justice. For instance, while the petrol duty hike announced with the Singapore Green Plan 2030 is a policy that ostensibly promotes environmental outcomes, it is regressive in nature and places the burden of the tax disproportionately on low-income delivery riders and private car hire drivers, especially since no affordable and readily available electric vehicle alternatives currently exist. The policy is reminiscent of the fuel taxes that sparked the Yellow Vest protest in France, which came about because a disproportionate burden of the government’s tax reforms fell on the working and middle classes. In response to the petrol duty hike, we launched a petition against it, calling for the government to give workers a full rebate on the hike (not just lasting for a year, as was planned) and to make cleaner transport an affordable reality. Climate justice must mean social and economic justice, and policy needs to internalise this.

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Any discourse around climate issues should be intersectional. Could you share what that means in terms of mindset shift, in both a local and international context? 

I think an important part of engaging in intersectional discourse is about rejecting broad characterisations of certain groups or communities and instead attuning yourself to recognise nuances in social identities and lived experiences. This then makes it easier to uncover how social, political, economic, and environmental issues impact people differently. Fundamentally, this requires empathy, openness, introspection, and a curiosity to understand realities beyond our own—something that I’m personally still learning to cultivate.

I also believe that this mindset shift demands that we who have privilege take the initiative to learn about these intersectional narratives shouldn’t wait on or expect marginalised groups to educate us. Fortunately, with the internet at many of our fingertips, such intersectional education has become a lot more accessible in Singapore. Self-education can also be as simple as striking up a conversation with a cab driver, hawker, cleaner—or even a friend who may have a vastly different social identity from you. For instance, as part of our petition against the petrol duty hike, SG Climate Rally members went on the streets to speak with riders and drivers to understand more about their grievances about the petrol duty and invite them to join weekly meetings about the campaign. 

Finally, to meaningfully engage in intersectional discourse, we must recognise that as long as any form of discrimination and oppression exists, we will not be able to truly achieve climate justice. As Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently put it: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” That is why SG Climate Rally consistently attempts to articulate the link between the climate crisis and the issues surrounding class, gender, race, disability, sexuality, imperialism—among others—in our calls for a just transition. This may seem expansive and daunting, but it is necessary work. Climate justice cannot be divorced from social and economic justice.

“To meaningfully engage in intersectional discourse, we must recognise that as long as any form of discrimination and oppression exists, we will not be able to truly achieve climate justice. As Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently put it: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Finally, share how you’re #Down4Earth and how you feel other individuals/brands can be too.

I am committed to contributing to a just transition to a net-zero economy and resisting business-as-usual, be it in my capacity as an activist, through my corporate job, or as an ordinary citizen.

My hope is also to see more people engaging in collective action, be it calling for change in the workplace or at a municipal or national level. There is strength in numbers; I certainly could not have done half the things that SG Climate Rally has achieved as a movement in the past two years if I had gone about this on my own. Caring about an issue as complex and systemic as the climate crisis can also be overwhelming and isolating at times, so it helps to have a community to offer much needed emotional support. I have learnt so much from my fellow SG Climate Rally members, not only about activism but also about how to better care for each other, and my life is better for it.

#Down4Earth is a social awareness campaign launched by ZERRIN on World Environment Day 2021. The campaign features Singapore-based sustainability advocates with a passion for urban farming, circular fashion, composting and more. They prove that there’s more to sustainability than the quintessential 3 R’s and there’s something everyone can do. Discover more about the campaign. Photography, styling and production by ZERRIN STUDIO.

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