Although empirical and theoretical studies suggest that climate influences the timing of life-history events in animals and plants, correlations between climate and the timing of events such as egg–laying, migration or flowering do not reveal the mechanisms by which natural selection operates on life–history events. We present a general autoregressive model of the timing of life–history events in relation to variation in global climate that, like autoregressive models of population dynamics, allows for a more mechanistic understanding of the roles of climate, resources and competition. We applied the model to data on 50 years of annual dates of first flowering by three species of plants in 26 populations covering 48 of latitude in Norway. In agreement with earlier studies, plants in most populations and all three species bloomed earlier following warmer winters. Moreover, our model revealed that earlier blooming reflected increasing influences of resources and density–dependent population limitation under climatic warming. The insights available from the application of this model to phenological data in other taxa will contribute to our understanding of the roles of endogenous versus exogenous processes in the evolution of the timing of life–history events in a changing climate.