The only important cause of the Colorado fires is not a mystery

Imagine if a group of foreign conspirators, by piloting a humming drone armada, dropped incendiary bombs on an American neighborhood. Somewhere between 500 and 1000 homes were destroyed. The smoke plumed over a major city, and flames threatened to stir up the radioactive particles in the soil of a nearby retired nuclear facility. Thousands of people, in a matter of hours, saw their communities burned to rubble.

Minus the drones and shady foreigners, that was what happened on December 30 in Boulder County, where I live. I drove my family the long way home around the smoke, rushing from an aborted vacation to gather some things in case the hurricane-force winds turned the fires northward. We meanwhile checked with friends in the evacuation zones, and some would lose everything. From the air or the ground, the scene looked like what we habitually see from abroad: a burning warzone, a dense cityscape dotted with infernos.

The morning after, when the governor and other officials spoke, they danced around the causes. Maybe it was a power line downed by the wind, but they won’t rule anything out. They noted the so-far snowless winter. Wind, dryness, tragedy. Of course, they thanked the first responders. (Seriously, thank you.) But the politicians studiously avoided what might seem like “politicizing” the situation. It’s too early.

What if the drone part were real, though? Would there be any hesitation in saying that we know who is responsible, and we will act, and they will pay? To not name the cause in that situation would be an insult to the innocents who suffered.

The past months have been terrifying to anyone paying attention here. No snow. This is Colorado. Snow normally starts in October. It has been sweater weather since the slow end of summer. The reservoirs have been drying up. More glaciers melted. Pleasant, really, but wrong. It is, simply and precisely, what scientists have warned for decades would happen because of human-induced climate change. That, more than any downed power line or stray spark or arson, is what caused fires to tear through a heavily populated suburb on Thursday. The important cause is clear.

My neighbors lost homes, as so many millions of climate refugees worldwide have before, because our political and economic institutions have failed to respond to a crisis they have long known was coming. Just this month, again, Congress failed to pass even an inadequate piece of climate legislation. Real conspiracies of powerful people exist to ensure inaction persists, because it is profitable. Some are even foreign, though the greatest failure of leadership is right here in the United States. Our democracy, such as it is, has failed this most basic test. That is why Boulder County, along with so many other homes in so many places, burned: the refusal to care for our common home.

Why can’t we name the cause? It is always harder when the cause is partly us. Really, it is mostly not us; most Americans would love to see strong climate action. The challenge, though, is metaphysical as well as political.

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle famously describes “four causes”—four different, often simultaneous, ways of understanding what makes things happen. The easiest kind to grasp is the “efficient” cause: the drone pilots, willfully dropping bombs. But no less relevant are the other kinds. The pilots’ ultimate, conspiratorial objective is the “final” cause; the plan the pilots followed is the “formal” cause; the napalm in the bombs is the “material” cause.

Some causes are more responsible than others. Few will blame the napalm more than the people who used it. The plan on a piece of paper can’t be blamed. The participants’ eventual objective may even seem noble, even if the tactics are repugnant.

In Colorado, what is speakable today is the material cause (the wind and kindling); perhaps, they say, there is an efficient cause (some arsonist), but likely not. Neither of these are as important as the formal and final causes: the changing climate and the economic order that our institutions have privileged above stewardship. Without those causes, a fire like this would be far, far less likely to occur. In their politic, not-finger-pointy sort of way, the authorities say this already:

Why would we so unhesitatingly point fingers at the foreign drones but not at the agents of climate change? Why is it too early to say what must be said? The most important facts in this case are already on hand. There should be no hesitation.

The fires still smoldering in my community are the result of an attack. The causes are human, regardless of how the first spark lit. They must be named and confronted, if we are ever to have a democracy capable of meeting its most basic responsibilities of protection and accountability. As January 6 approaches again, we’ll see a lot about that kind of threat to democracy. But December 30 insists that democracy as we know it has failed already and did so long before the mob.

Surely no oil executive or corrupt politician outright wanted to burn my county. I can only hope they are saddened like the rest of us. But it is not playing politics to recognize that causes are still causes even when they are not caused in that specific way. We already know the cause that matters.