Fire and Ice


John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Robert Frost’s Poem

In 1923, Robert Frost wrote a short poem entitled “Fire and Ice”. Here it is:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Robert Frost Wikipedia

Frost’s Poem Takes on a New Meaning Today

Today our world is facing two existential threats: catastrophic climate change (“fire”), and nuclear war, followed by nuclear winter (“ice”). But how is “desire” related to climate disaster? The answer is that our desire for comfort, and our desire for goods has led us to give a higher priority to the economy than we give to saving the earth for future generations.

The Threat of Catastrophic Climate Change

Despite promises made at each COP climate conference, the Keeling Curve, which registers carbon dioxide concentrations in our atmosphere, keeps increasing, indicating that the nations of the world have by no means stopped emitting greenhouse gases. On the contrary, they are emitting these gases in record amounts. Which countries are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters? Here is a list:

  1. China with 10.1 billion tons of CO2 released per year.
  2. United States, with 5.4 billion tons of CO2 per year.
  3. India, with 2.7 billion tons of CO2 per year.
  4. Russia, with 1.7 billion tons of CO2 per year.
  5. Japan, 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year.

Warnings from the Poles

Both the Arctic and the Antarctic are warming at twice the rate of the remainder of the world. Loss of Arctic sea ice may trigger a feedback loop involving the albedo effect: The ice, when present, reflects the sun’s heat back into space; but when the ice melts, the dark sea water absorbs light and heat from the sun, melting more ice, and exposing more dark sea water in a vicious circle.

Diagonal cracks have been observed in Antarctica’s enormous Thwaites Glacier, and scientists fear that it might shatter into small pieces like a windscreen. They also fear that the loss of Thwaites Glacier might trigger the collapse of many other glaciers, thus leading to a sea level rise of one or two meters.

Banks Give Trillions to Finance Fossil Fuel Companies

The world’s 60 largest banks have supported fossil fuel corporations with $5.5 since the Paris Accord. Since 2016, the year the Paris agreement took effect, the world’s 60 largest private banks have provided $5.5 trillion in financing to the fossil fuel industry, contravening their pledges to put themselves and their clients on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as the window to avert the worst effects of the climate crisis rapidly closes.

What Will Happen if We Fail?

If we fail to control catastrophic climate change, then, in the long run, most parts of the world will become uninhabitable, starting with tropical regions, and low lying areas which will be drowned by sea level rise.  Very many plants and animal species will become extinct. I believe that humans will not necessarily become extinct. because there will still be a few regions of the world where life is still possible. However, the global population of humans will be greatly reduced. One can also predict that violent conflicts will occur as people compete for the few regions where life is still possible.

Hopefully, the grimness of this scenario will spur our efforts to avoid a climate disaster.

The Threat of Nuclear War and Nuclear Winter

Recent studies by atmospheric scientists have shown that the smoke from burning cities produced by even a limited nuclear war would have a devastating effect on global agriculture. The studies show that the smoke would rise to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally and remain for a decade, blocking sunlight and destroying the ozone layer. Because of the devastating effect on global agriculture, darkness from even a small nuclear war (e.g. between India and Pakistan) would result in an estimated billion deaths from famine. (O. Toon, A. Robock and R. Turco, “The Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War”, Physics Today, vol. 61, No. 12, 2008, p. 37-42)

Flaws in the Concept of Nuclear Deterrence

One important defect is that nuclear war may occur through accident or miscalculation – through technical defects or human failings. This possibility is made greater by the fact that despite the end of the Cold War, thousands of missiles carrying nuclear warheads are still kept on a “hair-trigger” state of alert with a quasi-automatic reaction time measured in minutes. There is a constant danger that a nuclear war will be triggered by error in evaluating the signal on a radar screen.

A number of prominent political and military figures (many of whom have ample knowledge of the system of deterrence, having been part of it) have expressed concern about the danger of accidental nuclear war. Colin S. Grey expressed this concern as follows:

“The problem, indeed the enduring problem, is that we are resting our future upon a nuclear deterrence system concerning which we cannot tolerate even a single malfunction.”

General Curtis E. LeMay has written,

“In my opinion a general war will grow through a series of political miscalculations and accidents rather than through any deliberate attack by either side.”

Bruce G. Blair5 has remarked that

“It is obvious that the rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake.”… “This system is an accident waiting to happen.”

We know that war is madness. We know that it is responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience. We know that war pollutes our planet and that the almost unimaginable sums wasted on war prevent the happiness and prosperity of mankind. We know that nuclear weapons are insane, and that the precariously balanced deterrence system can break down at any time through human error or computer errors or through terrorist actions, and that it definitely will break down within our lifetimes unless we abolish it. We know that nuclear war threatens to destroy civilization and much of the biosphere.

The logic is there. We must translate into popular action which will put an end to the undemocratic, money-driven, power-lust-driven war machine. The peoples of the world must say very clearly that nuclear weapons are an absolute evil; that their possession does not increase anyone’s security; that their continued existence is a threat to the life of every person on the planet; and that these genocidal and potentially omnicidal weapons have no place in a civilized society.

Other books and articles on global problems and on cultural history may be found at the following web addresses:

Some Other Relevant Links:

Readers who are interested can find below some links which expand the discussion of the threats facing our world today.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Apr 2023.

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