With larger-than-life characters like dragons and giants, the HBO television series Game of Thrones (GoT) has captured the eyeballs, hearts, and online conversations of millions of viewers. Over the course of the 8-season series, characters have evolved as they’ve come to realize that there are bigger threats than who will lead the kingdom — a force is coming to destroy them all.
What many viewers aren’t talking about — and should be — is the overarching comparison of GoT‘s multiple plots and subplots to climate change. The pop culture allusion of “Winter is coming” is just one of the many GoT markers that are indicative of a global shift in our climate — long predicted, poorly understood, easily disregarded — that has the capacity to destroy an entire civilization.
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GoT depicts a geopolitical conflict among the various kingdoms and families for the possession of the Iron Throne. With White Walkers seeking to destroy the human race and leaders of the human world denying their arch enemies’ very existence, the series can be read as a parable for our own times, in which climate science and the sociopolitical landscape clash, and self-interested individuals vie for place and power against a backdrop of essential crisis.
The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones continues Sunday.
Game of Thrones as Climate Change Allegory
Warring factions must unite to join forces against a common enemy: the White Walkers, the living dead, many of whom were once comrades. In Game of Thrones, Jon Snow utters, “The same thing is coming for all of us — a general you can’t negotiate with, an army that doesn’t leave corpses behind on the battlefield.” Turning to the queen, he adds, “There is only one war that matters. The great war. And it is here.”
Eco-critical theory is the analysis of texts of all kinds — media, digital, written, spoken — that deal with the nonhuman world and our relationship to it. It is a beginning place to clarify how White Walkers personify climate change.
David Peterson, a linguist and creator of the in-world Dothraki and Valyrian languages, says the White Walkers are the antithesis of progress, “which I think is probably what the cause of climate change is now. Intense industrialization and furthering capitalism and consumerization — that is the culprit in the real world.” The Wall — that 20 stories or so high ice barrier that separates the North from the White Walkers — offers Westeros physical and emotional fortification. It has been so successful that leaders like Queen Cersei of King’s Landing deny the need to support the Wall and are cynical that White Walkers even exist.
That is, until Jon Snow brings a living White Walker specimen to the kingdom.
Democratic Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has offered a feminist view of Game of Thrones during her campaigning for the US Presidency.
“And as much as Dany wants to take on her family’s enemies and take back the Iron Throne, she knows that she must first fight the army of the dead that threatens all [hu]mankind. This is a revolutionary idea, in Westeros or anywhere else. A queen who declares that she doesn’t serve the interests of the rich and powerful? A ruler who doesn’t want to control the political system but to break the system as it is known? It’s no wonder that the people she meets in Westeros are skeptical.”
Such denials are indicative of today’s climate deniers who have been propped up by the fossil fuel industry and who debate scientific evidence of global climate change despite the data before them. Queen Cersei, unable to see the big picture, is a stand-in for our own myopic world leaders. The Wall as a huge, crumbling icy structure represents our lack of protection for the glaciers. The dragon Viserion that has been captured by the White Walkers and returned to (a type of) existence, melts the Wall in the same way our warming atmosphere is heating our world.
Indeed, with the glaciers’ continued retreat and thinning in the second half of the 20th century, accelerating ice changes in our own northern places like Alaska, Greenland, and Antarctica are experiencing the loss of land-based ice, which is contributing to global sea level rise.
George R.R. Martin: Climate Change has the Potential “to Destroy our World”
George R. R. Martin is the author of the 5-part A Song of Ice and Fire novel series which is set in the fictional land of Westeros. He’s also a writer, producer, and consultant to the Game of Thrones television series. Martin chatted with the New York Times a while back and acknowledged that much of the symbolism embedded in GoT has to do with climate change. “It’s kind of ironic because I started writing ‘Game of Thrones’ all the way back in 1991, long before anybody was talking about climate change. But there is — in a very broad sense — there’s a certain parallel there.”
Climate change, Martin says, “has the potential to destroy our world. And we’re ignoring that while we worry about the next election and issues that people are concerned about, like jobs. Jobs are a very important issue,” he adds. “All of these things are important issues. But none of them are important if, like, we’re dead and our cities are under the ocean.”
Many of Martin’s characters voice the ideology of their creator. For example, Huron Greyjoy, one of the Ironborn and a GoT’s antagonist, witnesses what it takes to kill a White Walker and flees back to his island home to hide. “I’ve seen everything — things you couldn’t imagine,” he says. “This is the only thing I’ve ever seen that terrifies me.” (Note: Yes, yes, I know that Cersei says his exodus is a ploy and that he’s assisting the soldiers funded by the Iron Bank of Braavos.)
The collapse of large ice sheets north of the Wall could also rapidly destabilize ocean circulation, reduce northward heat transport, and lead to the encroachment of snow and ice southwards towards King’s Landing. “The people in Westeros are fighting their individual battles over power and status and wealth,” Martin explains. “And those are so distracting them that they’re ignoring the threat of ‘winter is coming,’ which has the potential to destroy all of them and to destroy their world.”
Extreme climate shifts in our world are possible even on geologically short timescales. Anthropogenic climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind today and, if left unmitigated, the potential environmental impact on society may be far greater than any global recession.
“And there is a great parallel there to, I think, what I see this planet doing here, where we’re fighting our own battles. We’re fighting over issues, important issues, mind you — foreign policy, domestic policy, civil rights, social responsibility, social justice. All of these things are important,” Martin affirms. “But while we’re tearing ourselves apart over this and expending so much energy, there exists this threat of climate change, which, to my mind, is conclusively proved by most of the data and 99.9% of the scientific community. And it really has the potential to destroy our world… So really, climate change should be the number one priority for any politician who is capable of looking past the next election. But, unfortunately, there are only a handful of those.”
Game of Thrones, Seasons 7 & 8: The Enemy is Now Amongst Us
The Wildlings are climate refugees. Over and over in our own world today, we hear stories about people being displaced from their ancestral homes and homelands due to extreme weather events — droughts, flooding, earthquakes, fires. Our own version of the winter is here among us in the living, and it will hit the most vulnerable amongst us the hardest.
The Westeros climate shift permits and often requires creatures that lived apart in agreed-upon stasis to now move beyond their traditional habitats. The White Walkers in Game of Thrones represent our toxic algae, ticks, and adeus egypti mosquitoes. They are symbolic of the invasive species that are attacking our own lakes, streams, woodlands, parks, and mountainous regions. In GoT seasons 7 and 8, several episodes offer explicit pointers to the need to fight climate change.
- Jon Snow asks the Tyrion Lannister, the Hand of the Queen at Dragonstone, “How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?” Tyrion insightfully replies, “People’s minds aren’t made for problems that large. White Walkers, the Night King, Army of the Dead… it’s almost a relief to confront a comfortable familiar monster like my sister.”
- During Snow’s visit to Dragonstone, where he seeks dragonglass to kill the White Walkers, he makes a significant discovery. Faintly illuminated by the light of his torch, carvings made by the Children of the Forest speak to a time in the past when all had to unite to survive. These crucial images illustrate that the Children and the First Men banded together, despite centuries of bloodshed, to fight the White Walkers. Jon Snow expresses to Daenerys Targaryen the urgency of fighting together to face the threat of winter and eternal doom.
- Snow has to go to extreme lengths in order to find solid evidence to prove that the threat of the Night King is real and imminent to Cersei Lannister, who currently sits on the Iron Throne. Snow urges Cersei to forget her political ambitions and to join in the most important focus: surviving against death itself.
- Season 7 ended climatically with the Night King’s dragon bursting through the protective wall that had kept the people of Westeros safe for centuries. With the Wall breached, there is no barrier behind which to hide. Civilization must now stare death in the face.
- Sansa, while hiding in the crypt during the Battle of Winterfell, says to Tyrion Lannister, “It’s the most heroic thing we can do now: look truth in the face.” The Night King’s arrival is imminent, and we concurrently must ask ourselves if we can overcome the inevitability of climate change by facing its existence and join together to act on it.
Today the top 20 emitting countries in the world create roughly 75% of global emissions. The energy and industrial sectors are the major culprits, but action in every sector counts. Policies to address climate change will bear directly on the future of individuals in the US, impacting everything from our financial status, lifestyles, and local community culture. No longer can we assume that our elected officials will take climate change matters into their legislative hands for the betterment of society at large. Each of us as citizens need to be actively involved in the quest to reduce GHG emissions in our nations.
Many of us are working diligently to reduce carbon emissions and to address the effects of pollution and short-sighted environmental devastation. Scientists, politicians, policy wonks, and regular people are taking big and small steps to fight climate change: scientists convert spent cranberry bogs to salt marshes, students advocate for No Fossil Fuel pledges from their congressional reps, colleges divest of their fossil fuel portfolios, a Republican governor supports wind power, people across the political aisle endorse a carbon tax.
The Sunrisers and other youth are speaking out about the world they want to inhabit in their adult years. They’ll consume far less and recycle more. They’ll reduce their carbon footprints through a shared economy. They’ll eat much less meat and reject plastic packaging. Their houses will use solar power that stores energy and return it when possible back to the grid.
Game of Thrones is calling out for us all — not just youth — to see the reality of climate change and to take steps now to prevent the inevitable war that looms at our own doorsteps. If arch rivals can unite in the bloodthirsty world of Westeros, surely we could all work more closely to tackle the worsening climate crisis. We must.
Copyright free images via Pixabay.
Shout-out to Barbara Moran at WBRU for sharing her personal relationship to Game of Thrones and climate change.