Why it matters that ‘Game of Thrones’ is a story about climate change

A woman in white clothing is in a snowy and mountainous landscape.
HBO/Courtesy

With the eighth and final season of “Game of Thrones,” or “GOT,” premiering this weekend, most fans, myself included, will be anxiously anticipating the imminent battle between the antagonist ice zombie White Walkers and the (mostly) human citizens of Westeros. But while “GOT” depicts a geopolitical conflict among the various kingdoms and families for the possession of the Iron Throne, the reason for its popularity — beyond high budgets and enigmatic plotlines — may be its parable of climate change.

Several parallels can be drawn between climate science and the sociopolitical landscape of “GOT” lore, ranging from how the White Walkers seek to destroy the human race to how leaders of the human world which deny their existence. While the parameters of the allegory have already been addressed in the past, once even by author George R.R. Martin, it raises interesting questions for how the series will, or ought to, treat a narrative that parallels the most pressing environmental threat of its viewers’ time.

An allegory for global warming

Evidence of this eco-critical theory, clarifying how White Walkers personify climate change, can be found in at the creation of the White Walkers. In old Valyria, before the kingdoms were built, the children of the forest and the First Men — the former tree spirits and the latter humans with vaguely settler-colonial overtones, respectively — lived in harmony. But then the First Men began to encroach more onto the territory of the children in urban sprawl and cut down many trees that the children depended upon, in a parallel with modern deforestation. In retaliation, the children created the White Walkers to kill the First Men so that they could protect their land and themselves. The birth of the White Walkers is thereby simultaneously a force of nature and the embodiment of death. The White Walkers are also superhumanly powerful, coming to represent an existential threat killing everything in their path.

“(The creation of the White Walkers) was not done for the sake 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,” said David Peterson, a UC Berkeley alumnus, linguist and creator of the in-world Dothraki and Valyrian languages.

What separates the White Walkers from traditional zombies, however, is their mythology. For centuries, the humans have been protected from the White Walkers by the Wall, a massive ice barrier keeping out invading walkers, and have since grown complacent. Even Cersei Lannister, the queen of King’s Landing and the show’s current human antagonist, denies the existence of the White Walkers until Jon Snow, hero protagonist, brings a living specimen to her kingdom. To many, this denial of long-term threats in favor of political squabbling may be a clear connection to members of the U.S. political system who deny and debate evidence of global climate change despite the data they are confronted with.

Spencer Strub, a campus graduate student who taught the class “Game of Thrones, Medieval to Modern” in summer 2018, concurs with this thread of analysis, noting, “The Cersei Lannister story is a good stand-in for the fossil-fuel-funded congresspeople.”

Jon, the other men at the Wall and the wildlings, who live beyond the Wall’s protection, all have firsthand experience observing and combating the White Walkers. Yet, much like what today’s climate scientists face, many people in kingdoms far away from the Wall reject these accounts and evidence of their existence. This parallels the scientific community’s efforts to convince the public of evidence of anthropogenic climate change and humanity’s part in causing it.

“GOT” also discusses climate change’s sociological impacts. The wildlings, living in walker territory, are disproportionately impacted by the White Walkers because they are trapped beyond the Wall. This is similar to how underserved and low-income communities are often more vulnerable to the dangers of climate change. We see this trend occur repeatedly: New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, Haiti after the earthquake, civil wars spurred by limited resources in developing countries, the Dakota Access Pipeline, etc. While these are all examples of natural disasters, it is also becoming clear in scientific literature that they are an extension of climate change as they become more frequent and intense.

“The Cersei Lannister story is a good stand-in for the fossil-fuel-funded congresspeople.” — Spencer Strub

“That’s a fair parallel because it’s not just war; it’s also an effect of climate change. It affects the poor first because they can’t actually do anything to combat the effects but to get away from them,” Peterson said.

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Strub agreed with this, pointing out how the wildlings are stand-ins for frontline communities impacted by extreme weather, and it’s important for thinking about the narrative of displacement and migration that surrounds them.

The importance of eco-interpretations in popular narratives

Parallels with climate change are not novel interpretations of the show, and in fact, The New York Times and other publications have discussed the larger message of climate change with Martin. While Martin explained that many of these observations were fair assessments of the text, it is also important to note that once these novels have entered the realm of public discourse, what the author intended to do matters less than meanings that the work produces in discussion.

“People make meaning out of the books and the show, and that is not limited by the author’s intentions. I think that this is one of the ways that ‘Game of Thrones’ is mobilized into contemporary political discourse,” Strub said.

But while still separating these works from their respective creators, it would be negligent to ignore that the production of the HBO series is now confusing the boundaries of what essential “GOT” narrative is being told — is the big story the political drama or the climate change narrative?

Now that both the novel and the show are taking separate trajectories and the show is moving ahead of the books, HBO primarily has a responsibility to sensitively treat this underlying narrative of climate change with an awareness that doesn’t compromise the larger political orchestration — that is, the fantasy parable that carefully packages this politically charged issue for the public’s consumption.

If we assume that the creators of “GOT” are intentionally instilling this narrative of climate change, then what are audiences expected to do with this analogy? Should it be a catalyst for public activism and structural change?

Is the big story the political drama or the climate change narrative?

To this, Strub responded in the affirmative.

“We need more narratives that are about climate change,” Strub said. “People are being affected and displaced by the effects of climate change right now — all these things are stories that need to be told in fiction and in nonfiction.”

Strub further emphasized that there are also many power dynamics within our media networks and politics, such as politicians looking out for short-term election results rather than long-term public good, that must be acknowledged before we can engage in these controversial discussions about what to do in the face of climate change. The amount of information available in televised debates between denialists and scientists can be confusing and overwrought. Fictional narratives, however, may be an exception to this guideline because they are not how most people are exposed to this debate.

In discussing the relevance and importance of these narratives, the “how” is equally as important as the “why” — what is the importance of having political commentary and climate change narratives built into cultural phenomena such as “GOT”? While it might seem like an obvious answer to say that culturally imperative narratives such as this one should be something of a norm in televised media, TV may also be a more receptive medium for people to confront uncomfortable global issues such as climate change, though of course, problems remain in entrusting public opinion to a media diet.

On one hand, all press is good press; grasping the public’s attention on this issue is tantamount to having a nuanced, developed discussion on this issue, and “GOT,” the most-watched and -pirated show in the world, is a prime platform from which to launch this sort of awareness

Whether or not telling a story of climate change was their intention, the HBO creators of “GOT” now have a thorny challenge on their hands of telling a symbolically vital story with sensitivity and self-awareness. Quantity does not negate quality, however, and so more conversation on or metaphorically referencing climate change is not inherently better. It depends on how those conversations are narrated, especially as, in Strub’s words, “it’s harder to represent things that are seemingly slower moving and more abstract.”

Narrators of climate change such as the HBO creators of “GOT” — whether or not this was their intention, it is a common interpretation and therefore, we should treat it seriously in our discourse — have a responsibility to handle these narratives sensitively. This is something Strub brought to my attention.

“It’s harder to represent things that are seemingly slower moving and more abstract.” — Spencer Strub

“We don’t know how the show is going to end, but if they beat the White Walkers, that seems like a simplistic and optimistic resolution to this narrative, and if there’s a grim apocalyptic defeat of humanity by the White Walkers, then that would also be giving in to despair,” Strub said. “So I don’t know what the politically correct way of narrating through the allegory of the White Walkers would look like.”

Likewise, Peterson (although the ending was not disclosed to him because security on set) isn’t sure of how to avoid oversimplifying the allegorical issue of climate change in a way that also delivers a satisfying narrative.

Whatever the ending, it is more important to talk about these issues of parallel parables than who sits on the coveted throne at the end. The discourse is the bulk of the conversation that will ultimately frame and collectively form a public consciousness about climate change. Even if the issue of climate change is taken up subtextually or was not the intentional narrative of Martin or the show’s writers, it is vital that we heed this interpretation as a valid one, all the while remembering to be mindful and critical consumers of this media.

“GOT” is a show that provokes thought, and as audiences anticipate the final season, it is important that they consider new interpretations and challenge dominant ones. While the show may seem like a highbrow drama, it is firstly a cautionary tale.

Contact Layla Chamberlin at [email protected].