Is ‘Game of Thrones’ a parable about climate change?

Source: Arianna Skibell, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, July 20, 2017

The beloved and bloody HBO series “Game of Thrones” is back for a new season, and some are saying the message about climate change is undeniable.

Here’s the idea: The noble houses of Westeros have been so focused on playing politics — and killing each other to gain power — that they’ve failed to recognize a growing threat, the White Walkers, who are named for the snow and ice that accompany them.

White Walkers and their zombie army want to wipe out humanity with no regard for nation or noble house. But instead of uniting to fight the undead, the houses obsess over political disagreements and power struggles while ignoring the White Walkers or blatantly denying their existence.

Recognition that White Walkers are real is growing in the seven kingdoms. Now the noble houses must unite around the common goal to defeat the White Walkers or face extinction. Season seven will likely test humanity’s coordination.

Replace Westeros with global leaders and White Walkers with climate change, and that’s the metaphor.

David Doniger, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate program, says the climate message is clear.

“They had a stable political system, if you remember way back in the first episode, and now with everyone looking after their own political interest, no one is paying attention to the fact that winter is coming,” he said.

“Winter is coming” is the motto of House Stark, the keepers of the North and the closest to the great wall that separates civilization from wildlings and White Walkers. The expression is meant as a warning and alludes to the death and destruction winter could bring.

“I’m not going to belabor it, but there seems to be some degree of denial that winter is coming — at a minimum, ignoring it and pretending that this relatively benign weather system that they’ve been enjoying will go on forever,” Doniger said.

While depleting natural resources, he said, the United States — and Westeros — are losing much more.

“We’re eating up our political seed corn,” he said. “We’re actually depleting the sum of the unwritten things that make the country and political system work: a sense of cooperation, a willingness to compromise, attention to fact, respect for science, the willingness to plan for the future.

“That’s what ‘Game of Thrones’ seems to be about. Whoever wins will become the master of a highly impoverished kingdom.”

In 2015, political scientist Charli Carpenter published a paper in Foreign Affairs arguing that “Game of Thrones” is about how the drive to meet short-term goals distracts leaders from addressing larger questions of human survival.

Vox added climate change to the mix, and then scores of online publications picked up the idea, including Grist, ThinkProgress, Vogue and Esquire.

Vanity Fair ran a piece this month linking characters in the show to real-life climate players, in which the Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen is a stand-in for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Margaery Tyrell is Ivanka Trump and Cersei Lannister is the Koch brothers.

Scientists have picked up on the theme. Tom McGovern, an archaeologist who studies climate change, said a colleague was awarded a grant for a project proposal titled “Winter is Coming.”

In the show, doom comes in the form of endless winter. In the real world, the climate is warming, which, it turns out, complicates the job of the show’s producers.

Scenes showing the wasteland beyond the wall are shot in Iceland, where glaciers are melting, said Kit Harington, the actor who plays Jon Snow, the king in the North.

“We go out there this year, and the glacier that [we] filmed on four years ago, I saw it and it has shrunk. I saw climate change and global warming with my own eyes, and it is terrifying,” Harington told Time.

Warmer ocean means trouble

Brendan Kelly, the executive director of the Study of Environmental Arctic Change at the International Arctic Research Center, said a warming Arctic could have far greater implications for the earth than making winter scenes hard to film.

Arctic ice acts as a giant mirror that covers a huge portion of polar regions and reflects most of the sun’s energy away from the earth, he said. When warming temperatures melt sea ice into sea water, the sun’s energy is absorbed, which causes more warming (Climatewire, March 2).

“On a local scale, a change in sea ice impacts people who hunt and fish on sea ice or industries who use ice as a platform for oil exploration,” Kelly said.

Less ice in summer lets wind whip up larger waves that slam the shoreline more frequently, causing erosion.

“As the glaciers and ice sheets melt and raise sea level even more, that will have a greater impact on coastal flooding and erosion,” he said.

The consequence is not only a warmer ocean, he said, but also a warmer atmosphere above the Arctic Ocean. As the ocean temperature and the atmospheric temperature become more similar, the jet stream slows down (Greenwire, March 27).

“The jet stream becomes much wavier, and those waves are associated with extreme weather events,” Kelly said.

And as the ice melts, carbon stored in permafrost is released, exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions and shifting how water flows or doesn’t flow, which can change ecosystems (Climatewire, March 30).

In other words: Summer is coming.