We know that nothing in this world stays the same.  What we do not know is how or why it doesn’t.  Probably, this is because we do not need to know.

After five or six years in western Wyoming, in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, I recognized what seemed a stable weather pattern.  Summers were warm and dry, except for the afternoon thunderstorms.  By the end of June, the prairie had browned and stayed that way until after the monsoon that commenced like clockwork in mid-August and lasted until the start of September.  Around the end of the first week of the month, an overnight storm dropped six inches of snow that melted off by ten in the morning.  From then on, a perfect Indian Summer prevailed, dry and warm and windless under a shiny, cloudless sky—until the first of the snowstorms that rolled in without warning from the Pacific in the last week of October and kept on coming until Christmas.  January and the first part of February were dry and very cold, with temperatures as low as -50 degrees, before the chinook thaw in mid-February arrived.  March was wet again, and the biggest winter storms came in April.  From mid-May, the prairie was green and fresh until the heat and drought of early summer seared it in late June.  The pattern seemed fixed as the constellations in their seasonal course—before, in the mid-80’s, it came apart in the drought years that culminated in the Yellowstone conflagration in the summer of ’88.

Though there were wet years again after that, the familiar cycle had not succeeded in reestablishing itself in 1997, when I moved to New Mexico for two years.  The spring of ’99 (the year I returned north), Wyoming looked as if it had been airbrushed green to make an Irish travel brochure; since then, the region has suffered from almost unrelieved drought, said by climatologists to rival a dry period in the mid-18th century lasting 30 or 40 years.  Two years ago, most of Colorado seemed on fire.  This year, following a winter that got off to a start like an old-timer’s nightmare before losing all interest in life and collapsing in neurotic exhaustion into an early grave, the fire warnings began in the middle of March as the snows receded from the foothills of the Front Range.  On approach into Denver International Airport on the second day of spring, I watched the High Plains lifting rapidly toward the belly of the big jet, brown and patchy like the hide of a sick lion, showing green only in the turned sections where the winter wheat struggled to take hold in rows of desiccated parallel scratches.

If the American West really is suffering from global warming, and if global warming is actually caused by an industrial system powered by fossil fuels, then this is no more than poetic justice, the economy of the West being heavily dependent on mineral extraction.  Strangely, this goes ignored by the agricultural interest, despite the fact that agriculture sees itself as the major, if not the sole, victim of the warming trend, and that its hostility toward the extractive industry is legendary.  Of course, modern agriculture is itself an industry, as dependent on oil and petrochemicals as any other.  Still, it is not in the nature of ranchers to exercise sweet reason for the purpose of putting other people’s trials and tribulations on a level with their own.  Where the issue of global warming is concerned, it is possible that they recognize that they and the international corporations who own the rights to the minerals underlying their sugar-beet fields and cattle herds are in the same boat.  As indeed we all are.

If global warming produced by industrial development is not a reality, then it ought to be, in the sense that it is unrealistic to suppose that human civilization can vent millions of tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere, year after year, decade after decade, century after century, without producing climatic change, good, bad—or simply neutral.  There is always that third possibility to excuse us from having to ask, “Good for what?” and “Bad for what?” to which the obvious answer seems to be, “Bad for whatever exists in the contemporary epoch.”  From this, the hypothetical visitor from Mars might be pardoned for concluding that Dick Cheney would be in favor of regulations designed to halt the warming process and Ralph Nader, opposed to them.  What is is for destruction: What is not is to be realized in the future.  Of course, human beings are not as consistent as that.  Modern “conservatives” want stability in order to perpetuate the destabilizing forces of turbocapitalism, while “liberals” desire change that will produce stasis, which appears to them as the End of History.  If we really are free to determine our own destiny, then we shouldn’t be.

It is a certain fact that the earth’s atmosphere is warming and has been for at least a hundred years.  Whether the change is a natural phenomenon of the sort that brought the Ice Age to a close 11,500 years ago, or whether it is man-made—or a combination of both—is the question on the table.  So far, the debate has set politicians on the one side, activists on the other, and scientists somewhere in between.  But as the evidence in favor of the human factor mounts, the politicians have tended to disengage themselves from the argument by assuming an aloof demeanor that signals a determined uninterest and neglect strikingly at odds with their policy of opinionated interference in every other situation under the sun.  When a group of “concerned” scientists recently accused the Bush administration of failing to acknowledge scientific research that contradicts its preconceived conclusions, the administration’s spokesmen hardly bothered to defend it against the charge.  More significantly, the administration ignored entirely a worst-case scenario commissioned within its own Defense Department warning that, within as little as 20 years, global warming could inundate European as well as Third World cities, decimate crop production worldwide, make fresh water a scarce commodity, and lead to mass migrations and endemic nuclear warfare as countries contend with one another for the basic necessities of existence.  This time around, the White House did not risk detailing spokesmen to engage in damage control; instead, everyone was ordered to keep mum, and the story, which had appeared in the British Observer and the Washington Post, evanesced like snowdrops in an overheated January.  For the Department of Defense, global warning looms as a security threat more dire than Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, Syria, or Iran.  For the Commander in Chief, it is both an unwanted nuisance and a severe political embarrassment.

“Where there is no solution,” James Burnham was fond of observing, “there is no problem.”  That is one of the wisest sayings ever said, and it would be pleasant to imagine that the wisdom it represents is reflected in the political establishment’s response to the “problem” of global warming.  Of course, we all know better than to believe that, understanding as everyone does that modern politicians acknowledge no limits to positivist philosophies and the activist politics to which they give rise.  Politicians, however, are extremely quick to recognize one thing: They always know when they are trapped.  In the overwhelming majority of crises in which they find themselves ensnared, the trap is of their own making, or created by particular petty circumstances, or simply a stroke of bad luck.  One time in every 10,000, however, politicians discover themselves trapped by history—and are so warned by their preternatural political sense.  The global-warming crisis is one of those times, their trap being our trap as well—the world’s trap.  The ancients called it Fate, and the politicians might, too—if only they had a philosophical concept to match the word.  On the one hand, you might assure your constituency that you, a mere human being, cannot be expected to prevail against the force of destiny; on the other, seeking to transfer superhuman responsibility from your own Bible-backed shoulders onto those of Atlas seems unbecoming to one who ran for office as a superhuman being proposing to anneal himself with that paradivinity called “the state.”  Or, you could invoke God’s Will to excuse your impotence—had you not spent your career explaining that the Will of the Deity is really one and the same thing as your own.  If only George W. Bush, reviled by international opinion for having refused to sign the Kyoto Treaty, had said either “Climate control is incompatible with economic growth, and so humanity will have to find a way to accommodate itself to global warming, as it has to innumerable other natural challenges,” or “There is no solution to the problem of global warming; therefore, global warming is not a problem,” his behavior would have been that of a philosopher, a statesman, and an honest man.  Unfortunately, the American political system precludes the president from being any of these.  It does not, however, make him wrong in his view of global warming and his sense of historical entrapment an illusion.

The political classes are probably incapable of learning from (as opposed to reacting to) the lessons the global-warming phenomenon has to teach the overweeningly presumptuous human race.  The rest of us, however, are free to pay attention or not, as we choose.

Ongoing climate change is clearly a reality.  Just as obviously, it is impervious to human action at this point in its development, whether humans bear any or all responsibility for it, or whether they have none.  The reason has less to do with the insufficiency of technique than with the fact that humanity, as a collective, is temperamentally incapable of the kind of sustained cooperative action toward a given end that any human solution to the “problem” would entail.  This inability, so far from being the lamentable moral flaw that liberals insist “society” could rectify through “education” and an end to “selfishness,” is actually among Homo sapiens’ most powerful self-defense mechanisms.  Without it, most of Asia would be in the second or third millennium of despotism; the Third Reich would survive today in the assurance of another nine-and-a-half centuries of nationalistic glory ahead; the Soviet Union would rule half the world; the Frankfurt School would be lodged in the White House; and the United States would be governed by a jurisprudence developed from the precepts of permissive tolerance.  This is the lesson of the Tower of Babel.  Were humanity able to control its destiny, then humanity’s destiny would be that of inhuman control.  But God, in His infinite wisdom, made us differently.  Because of it, we are, from time to time, victims of historical entrapment—in this instance, by smoking factory chimneys and swarming poisonous automobiles, expanding ozone holes, melting glaciers, rising oceans, bombarding ultraviolet rays, vanishing species, dying forests, flooded coastlines and islands.  Bush and his people are absolutely right: Remedial action would be certain to destroy “the American way of life,” which is also the way of life to which the entire world aspires—if, indeed, effective remedial action were possible, which it is not.  Positivists always insist that we must plan for the long run, but men cannot achieve the degree of coordination, concentration, and determination required to implement long-run planning successfully.  Historically, the most societies have ever managed in the long run is to endure the consequences of events ineluctably generated by aspects (often the most admirable aspects) of their unique individual characters.  The translator who rendered the title of Malraux’s novel La conditione humaine into English as Man’s Fate was, in the Chestertonian tradition, working closer to truth than he was to fact.

Man is a species like any other on earth but also different from any other.  For one thing, he is the sole species capable of altering the destiny of every species including his own, and even of ending it.  There is poignancy in the situation, but for me, at any rate, driving from the airport north toward home along the hideously man-despoiled and man-desecrated Front Range of Colorado, little or no sympathy where the human race is concerned.  Created in the image of God, we know what we are doing, whether or not we possess any longer the power to quit doing it.  Unaware and unresponsible nature is another matter.

The plains where they run against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains are potholed with ponds and lakes, some of them natural, most of them nowadays man-made.  These are home to large and innumerable flocks of Canada geese that, though nonmigratory, seem always in restless motion, lifting away in sudden flights from the surface of the water to wheel like windblown smoke above the mushrooming subdivisions and what remains of the fertile fields and tangled cottonwood stands.  There are few bird types more intelligent than the Canada goose, which also mates for life; and I felt a pang on their behalf as I watched these birds beat powerfully through the mild spring air—unknowing that the air was smog and of what the fact portended for them, perhaps in the not-so-distant future.

Yet man is the only animal that knows he is going to die, and sentimentality is a sin of sorts.  And so I put the geese from my mind and concentrated on the rugged indestructible mountains instead.  Anyway, I tried to.