Global Heating and Climate Destabilization:  The Basics in Context

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“No transformation without a crisis.”  –  Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes

This year is already the hottest year on record. When I share photos and stories about my work in a shelter at the U.S./Mexico border, I’m asked what the future looks like. I reply, ‘With global heating, all bets are off.”  Legions of people will be on the move.  People look at me in genuine confusion.  I understand why.  It takes emotional and spiritual labor to move beyond the superficial and curated experiences of modern life to glimpse the monster hidden in plain sight. There is a chasm in understanding among us about the realities of climate destabilization, what’s causing it, and what needs to be done. 

How can we possibly act collectively when we have no shared sense of what is happening and what is at stake?  In the past, a lot of my anxiety stemmed from a belief that we could avoid the crisis that is now upon us by pedaling faster. Now, although I remain committed to do what I can, I understand that the deep structural and cultural transformation needed cannot happen without the repeated, painful shocks we’re experiencing. 

Some of us are in a trough of anguish, bearing witness to a planet on fire.  Others are convinced that we, in the U.S., have stepped up to the challenge and are moving in the right direction.  The lack of the most basic literacy on global heating is not surprising.  Few people in positions of power and authority are leveling with us – for good reason.  The foundations of modern culture, politics, and growth economies are based on oil.  We are accustomed to a way of life that has only been possible for less than two hundred years.  Those of us with comfortable lives want to maintain them as more and more of us struggle to survive.  There’s always an election coming up.  There’s money to be made.


  • The harm already done to climate stability and global temperatures is irreversible.  Some future changes are unavoidable but can be limited.  However, the will to make substantive change is still not there. 
  • Burning fossil fuels (gasoline, jet fuel, propane, natural gas, oil, and coal) is responsible for 75% of the rise in global temperatures. I and other climate activists now refer to this as global scorching. 
  •  Global use of fossil fuels is not declining.  It is on the rise.  There is less coal in the mix, but more oil and natural gas is being burned.
  • The United States remains the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases.
  • Deforestation is a major source of climate breakdown. Wildfires are nothing new, but increasing climate destabilization has made their frequency and ferocity unprecedented.
  • Poets, filmmakers, and writers have begun to acknowledge collapse.   Strangely, I find myself feeling relieved and less alone.    

We need to move away from burning fossil fuels as if everything we’ve loved and worked for is at stake.  However, wealthy countries cannot simply substitute different forms of energy and maintain a mindset of endless growth and a lack of accountability for the harm inflicted on poor countries.  The U.S. government continues to subsidize oil production.  New oil and gas leases are approved for auction.  New fossil fuel infrastructure projects, like a Line 5 tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac, are grinding their way through the system.  

Tiokosin Ghosthorse, host and producer of First Voices Indigenous Radio, calls asphalt roads and parking lots the largest oil spill in the history of the world.  Yet here in the auto state, we are “fixing the damn roads” by smearing massive quantities of oily, heat-trapping asphalt without a discussion on what nifty public transportation might look like.  With the electric vehicle (EV), we are preparing for another generation of car culture that may not be wise – or even possible.  We cannot imagine anything different.    

There is a profound disconnection between the typical single issue focus and the deeper, interdependent realities. We tend to compartmentalize our activism and our choices without a larger context.  This is dangerous.  

For example, Enbridge’s 5 has been positioned as an obvious threat to the waters of the Straits but is almost never connected with our oily way of life and the undeclared climate crisis.  How can crude oil pipelines be decommissioned when our lives depend on the deadly cargo they carry?  Decommissioning Line 5 is not a solution for the health of people who live near the refineries of zip code 48217 and Chemical Valley, Sarnia.  Nor is it a solution for a habitable planet for our children.  Humanity could survive an oil spill at the Straits.  (I’d prefer not to have one.)  But it’s not clear what will be left after climate collapse.  Water is life.  And so is a climate mild and stable enough to grow food. 

In the same way, the outcry against the expansion of Camp Grayling is divorced from its relationship with rampant and growing militarism, and imperial interests.  Obscene budgets for endless war continue to receive overwhelming bipartisan support. The U.S. military is one of the largest greenhouse gas emitters on earth and perhaps the largest polluter of water, soil, and air.    In this context, you could say that militarism today is literally a war against life.  

 We insist we don’t want these projects in our backyard.  No one does. Until we acknowledge our common cause in protecting life, the chance for a transformative level of global solidarity and cooperation is lost.  Connecting the dots between issues will reveal the extent of the harm inflicted on our only home and some of what lies ahead.  Facing this will require great courage.  There are no easy answers 

What then?  Do we throw up our hands and give up?  No, because this is how transformation works.  Resistance, including our own, generates heat and tension.  The shift that is needed requires massive amounts of both.  So here we are.

Birdsong has been strangely piercing this year as if life is crying out, “Are you determined to sacrifice me for your convenience, comforts, and pleasures?”  

Some of us are tending tomato plants. Others are shielding Monarch cocoons from harm.  These acts of reverence and care surely point to a way forward.  Eventually,  we in wealthy countries will be forced to adapt to a scorched planet that will profoundly affect the lives of our children and grandchildren.  I see us eventually falling to our knees in sorrow and regret only to discover grieving together in community is the very catalyst for our transformation.  The example of poor countries struggling to survive and adapt along with the wisdom of Indigenous peoples who’ve been on the frontlines of this crisis may be our most important teachers.

These are prophetic times of awe and wonder.  The work is not about developing a 20-point plan.  It is not an invitation to fight harder.  The forces sweeping through the world are beyond our control.  We must stay with the trouble and trust that what is needed will be revealed.  Transformation begins as an inside job.  Humility, vulnerability, and above all beloved community will be our most reliable support as we continue to step into a great mystery.  There are no promises of safety.

“These are the times to grow our souls.”  –  Grace Lee Boggs

Rev. Deb Hansen works as a spiritual companion, water and climate protector, and advocate for healing and repairing our relationships with the larger kin-dom and with one another.  In winter, she volunteers at a shelter for people seeking refuge at the U.S./Mexico border.  She worked for many years in corporate America before becoming a refugee of modern culture.  She was a board member with Michigan Interfaith Power & Light and a chaplain at Sinai-Grace Hospital.  She’s endlessly fascinated by the process of cultural transformation that allows human life to renew itself.