When Gabrielle Dewsbury, 17, finishes school, she thinks she’d like to be a doctor.
She isn’t 100 per cent sure and anyway, she knows her choice of degree is dependent on her final marks at the end of 2020. Failing medicine, she’ll most likely look at law or international relations: she’s keeping her ambitions lofty. But at the moment, medicine is her number one goal.
At the same time, it’s hard to make concrete decisions about her future when the planet is cooking.
“I was speaking to someone the other day who grew up in the time if the Cold War – having drills under their desks and learning what to do if a nuclear bomb went off – and they said they didn’t have the thought in their heads of living beyond 25 because they just assumed they wouldn’t,” she said.
“It’s becoming the same thing for us. I really want a good education, I’m thinking about my career. And then I think about climate change and, how is that going to affect it?”
There are twin strands of worry in the mind of any young person who reads the news: all other problems, and climate change. The upcoming TCE exams, and climate change. What university courses to aim for, and climate change. What to wear, what to watch on Netflix, what to do on the weekend, and climate change. The everyday, and the fact that civilisation as we know it is about to collapse.
“A lot of young people do get what’s called climate anxiety, which is something that we talk about a lot,” her friend, Chloe McCann, 18, said. “It is something that really affects people. Because it is a bit of an impending apocalypse, to put it in those terms.”
If Gabrielle does get into medicine, she’ll likely do it at the University of Tasmania. She’ll move to Hobart, find a room in a sharehouse, study hard, and keep her head down – albeit with at least a couple of nights spilling out into Salamanca Place or of the Brisbane Hotel. She’ll meet someone. They’ll break up. She’ll meet someone else. Depending on which specific medical degree she chooses, it will take her up to seven years to graduate. At age 27 or thereabouts, she’ll walk across the stage in a gown and a mortarboard cap.
She’ll be a doctor, ready to take on the world.
The following year, when Gabrielle turns 28, Australia will be 1.5 to 2 degrees hotter than it should be. In the mainland interior, drought will become the new normal: the periods of rainfall farmers now use to shore up viability will be rare. Bushfires – already swallowing up wet, Gondwanan rainforest that has gone uncharred for millennia – will become even more catastrophic. There will be more cyclones. There will be more flash flooding. There will be the subsequent political and cultural turmoil.
But ordinary life will go on.
It is impossible to chart the future of any human life from the age of 17, but if you were a betting person, you’d put money on Gabrielle having a fairly enviable adulthood.
She’s doing well in school; she’s involved in the model United Nations, Scouts, and public speaking. She’s an achiever, and one can assume her thirties and forties will be filled with achievement. Maybe through Doctors Without Borders, or Australian Doctors International. Maybe simply through the state public health system.
There will be periods where she is full of hope and optimism and in love with her life, surrounded by friends and family and meaning. There will be periods where she feels impotent and alone. Her time will be occupied by the demanding task of being an adult in the world.
Throughout this period in Gabrielle’s life, the national frenzy about ‘boat people’ will intensify.
At the moment, there are 35,000 refugees in total living in Australia. By the time Gabrielle is 48 years old, 143 million people worldwide will be in need of a new home.
Their native lands will become uninhabitable: increased heat will suck the fresh water out of equatorial countries at the same time as the rising ocean swallows available land. These equatorial countries destined to be worst-hit are some of the world’s most populated: Indonesia, Bangladesh, parts of India and China, all of Central America. As well as natural disasters, there will be wars over resources as basic as food and water. We congratulate ourselves on the progress we’ve made since the end of World War II, but that will be undone: the UN has warned that “human rights might not survive”.
“The more information and statistics that come out, the scarier it is,” Gabrielle said. “We’re not going to have any fresh air, biodiversity is breaking down, there’s going to be so many people looking for homes where there aren’t tornadoes or floods or islands literally just going underwater … it is really scary to think about.”
But now, a note of optimism. If forecasts in the field of medicine are right, Gabrielle’s nineties will not be the last gasp that they are for 90-year-olds living today. She will be the beneficiary of stem cell treatments and genetic manipulation and miracle cures we haven’t even thought to hypothethise about yet. There is a real chance she could be 98, and as functionally healthy and full of zest as she is now, at the age of 17.
But by the time Gabrielle is 98, Australia will be four degrees hotter than it is now. Coastal areas – as in, where 85 per cent of Australians live – will be largely untenable, as sea levels rise one metre on average worldwide. Brisbane, Newcastle, Cairns, Geelong, half of Melbourne, and large parts of Adelaide and Sydney – and Invermay – will be submerged.
It can be hard, when reading the staid language of the scientific reports that form the basis of most climate change reporting, to really grasp the enormity of what is about to happen. So to defer to an author, Jonathon Franzen, this is what Gabrielle and her generation are in for: “If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destablisation of life on Earth – massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought,” he said in a recent essay. “If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”
These predictions into Gabrielle’s future assume that life in the 2020s has carried on as normal. Maybe with some minor investment in solar panels, or with some carbon-sucking technology deployed into the atmosphere. But these predictions assume that the immediate radical upheaval that is required in every aspect of our pollutant-dependent societies, economies, political spheres, and daily lives as they are in 2019, does not eventuate.
If every country in the world cuts its emissions of carbon dioxide to zero by 2030 – 11 years from now – the worst effects of climate change can be halted. This will require enormous – almost incomprehensible – change, as well as a populace capable of demanding that change from politicians.
That’s why Gabrielle Dewsbury, 17, is taking to the streets. She is part of the team organising the Launceston iteration of the Global Strike for Climate on September 20. They are demanding three things of the government: one, no new carbon-emitting energy projects, including the Adani coal mine in Queensland; two, implementing 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030; and three, overseeing a just transition that sees employees in the fossil fuel industry re-skilled to work on new renewable energy projects.
“It’s a scary thing, knowing that our future isn’t going to be anything like what it is now, and that if we don’t act now there will be terrible consequences,” Gabrielle said.
“We’re trying to turn the fear and the anger that we have into making action.”
- The Global Strike for Climate is on September 20 at 12pm in Civic Square.