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Varsha Yajman demands Australia do better for the climate

Meet the young South Asian advocate for Mother Earth

Indian-Australian climate justice activist, Varsha Yajman, is often called a 'protesting powerhouse'. At just 18 years of age, she was profiled by Tory Burch as one of the most inspiring women worldwide. She might not consider herself an activist, but her work is creating a solid impact across Australia that recently ranked last for climate action among 193 UN member countries.

Dilpreet speaks with Varsha.

Dilpreet: I have to be honest, Varsha; it is pretty fresh to see a South Asian woman so prominent in the climate justice movement here in Australia. Were you always passionate about this, or did a particular incident shape your politics?

Varsha: I grew up with political chats in my family and a push to get involved by volunteering to give back to the community. However, climate justice is something that I stumbled upon by signing up to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition's Student Climate Leadership Program that my school sent around. Climate change was something I'd only heard about in school, so this program made me realise how close to home climate change actually was. As I've continued on my journey through the movement, I've become more passionate, learning about the non-discrimination nature of climate change and the impact on First Nations peoples and people in India, where I'm from.

I've reflected on my privilege that has given me space and a platform to speak up, so I hope to do what I can to speak up about climate justice.


Dilpreet: How can more South Asians be involved in climate justice in Australia - especially given the Adani project that defines India-Australian "relations"?

Varsha: It can be difficult to feel accepted in a predominantly white movement and one that has such a big focus on the India-Australia "relations" regarding the Adani mine. I am currently part of setting up an amazing group for South Asians fighting for climate justice. We want this to be a group for South Asians to share their experiences in advocacy and create space to elevate South Asians in the climate justice movement.

Joining groups such as the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and School Strike for Climate, which has made spaces for people of colour, is also a great way to join. These groups ultimately create a community of support vital in a fight for justice that can sometimes be draining. It is also important to remember that if you don't feel comfortable protesting, there are plenty of ways to impact, through volunteering at a climate organisation, working in a space such as law reform, politics, renewable technology. The most important thing is to know that there is space for you, and being South Asian is something to be truly proud of!



Dilpreet: Congratulations on partnering with Converse to launch a virtual store on an Ocean Garbage Patch. Would you please tell us more about the Patch and how the store will help?

Varsha: Thank you so much! I have had a wonderful time working on this project as a Converse All Star with the Converse team and co-All Star Maggie Zhou, a sustainable fashion advocate and writer. The Garbage Patch is essentially a massive trash vortex located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and California. It contains about 80 million tons of plastic, doubling in size each decade.

Seeing the lack of awareness about this Patch, Converse set up a Renew Labs Store on top of it. Proceeds from the store were donated to Take3, a nonprofit committed to cleaning ocean plastic, to fund the removal of the Garbage Patch on which it stands. This way, every pair of shoes 'sold' takes the store closer to removing its own foundation and closing it down for good. The store opened on Earth Day and closed on World Oceans' Day.

The Garbage Patch has been forgotten, and it's fantastic to see it being brought back into conversations about climate justice. This store created awareness about the Patch by the people who made a purchase from the store and from those who had a conversation about it. During a time like the pandemic, it really helped me reflect on the necessity of having multiple avenues to work towards climate justice. I also believe that having a popular and iconic brand like Converse taking steps towards sustainability creates a culture where other brands begin to do the same.

Dilpreet: Australia has ranked last among 193 UN nations for climate action. What are some of the critical steps the country has to take right now?

Varsha: It's not only disappointing but also disheartening to see Australia's current climate policy. Australia needs to set tangible net-zero targets by setting short term targets for 2030 and long-term targets for 2050. These targets are vital for us to stay between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees which is crucial. Our Pacific Islander neighbours will already suffer significant consequences with a 1.1 degree increase.

The International Energy Agency released a report this year that confirmed that to meet our Paris goals of staying below 1.5 degrees; there should be no new coal, oil and gas projects. We need to make sure we have a just transition to ensure workers in the coal, oil and gas industry are not left financially unstable; it instead provides an opportunity to move into the renewable sector. 

Dilpreet: This week is NAIDOC Week, Varsha, and the theme is 'Heal Country'. Could you share some of your thoughts on how settlers and visitors to this land can do the work through environmentalism?

Varsha: I'm definitely still learning about this; however, during my time in the climate justice movement, I've learned that First Nations justice is at the heart of any environmental justice we aim to achieve. To acknowledge this in our actions, we must support First Nations people while not dominating the conversations. First Nations people know how to manage this land; it is our job to let them lead the fight for climate justice while providing a sense of community and support by standing in solidarity with them.

About the author

Dilpreet is the founder of South Asian Today. More about her can be found here.




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