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Summer Is Coming: Is HBO’s Hit Fantasy Show ‘Game Of Thrones’ A Climate Change Parable?

By Joe Romm  

"Summer Is Coming: Is HBO’s Hit Fantasy Show ‘Game Of Thrones’ A Climate Change Parable?"

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So it’s the season finale of Game of Thrones tonight. One hopes there is not another wedding.

But why, aside from the casual violence and gratuitous nudity and, of course, Peter Dinklage, is the HBO show so popular?

In an otherwise excellent article on the appeal of the books and TV series for the London Review of Books, John Lanchester explains “the second structural reason for this story’s appeal right here, right now”:

This is to do with the seasons. In Westeros, seasons last not for months but for years, and are not predictable in duration. Nobody knows when – to borrow the minatory motto of the Starks – ‘winter is coming.’ At the start of Game of Thrones, summer has been going on for years, and the younger generation has no memory of anything else; the blithe young aristocrats who’ve grown up in this environment are, in Catelyn’s mordant judgment, ‘the knights of summer’. The first signs of autumn are at hand, however, and the maesters – they’re the caste of priest/doctor/scientists – have made an official announcement that winter is indeed on its way. A winter that is always notoriously hard, and can last not just years but a decade or more.

It’s a huge all-encompassing environmental force, determining the lives of everyone, open-endedly. The climate change aspect of this is obvious to the contemporary audience, but there’s something more subtle and subtextual at work here too: another economic metaphor, another kind of difficult climate. Westeros is like our own world, in which hard times have arrived, and no one feels immune from their consequences, and no one knows how long the freeze will last. Our freeze is economic, but still. Put these two components together, and even the fantasy-averse, surely, can start to see the contemporary appeal of this story, this world. It’s a universe in which nobody is secure, and the climate is getting steadily harder, and no one knows when the good weather will return.

Well, not quite.

While there may be, as one blogger put it, “9 Things Game of Thrones Taught Me About Climate Change,” The truth is, the climate really hasn’t started to change much, at least in the TV series. No, I haven’t read the books — these days I only have time for post-apocalyptic blood baths [or is that redundant?], not pre-apocalyptic ones

We’re near the end of season 3 and it’s still as hot as ever in most of Westeros, which of course it has to be to justify the gratuitous nudity. When winter comes, people put more clothes on, and who really wants to see a show where everybody’s body is totally covered up … unless, that is, they’re at a wedding and covered in blood, but I digress. Oh, and retroactive spoiler alert.

So even though we do still get climate-change-induced blasts of snow, it’s endless summer that’s coming our way — and it won’t be pretty (see “We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming”

The main quality the people of Westeros has in common with our world is choosing to blithely ignore warnings of impending climate change. Oh, and I suppose the other quality they have in common with our world is a lack of amoral compass, which may be much the same thing (see “Global Warming Is The Great Moral Crisis Of Our Time“).

But the people of Westeros have it better than us in one big way (not counting their not having to worry so much whether they gave the right wedding gift). No matter what they do, their winter lasts “only” a decade or two. If we don’t act soon, our summer is going to last a whole lot longer (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe_.

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17 Responses to Summer Is Coming: Is HBO’s Hit Fantasy Show ‘Game Of Thrones’ A Climate Change Parable?

  1. Lore says:

    Future generations may very well digress into some sort of feudal system.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Neo-feudalism is the end-stage of the neo-liberal project, and it is here, already, more or less. Western states, with the USA and UK the most affected in the OECD are experiencing levels of inequality, of elite wealth and conspicuous, arrogant, display, unseen for generations. It hardly comes as a surprise because the root Rightwing psychopathology does not exactly embrace empathy and fellow feeling towards the plebs, or to one another amongst the elite, either. Social conditions for tens of millions in the West are already ‘Dickensian’ and with the economic process of elite pillage and social disintegration deepening by the day, will certainly soon be at Dark Ages or Neolithic levels of brutishness. This, of course, is not even to encompass the coming horrors of global ecological collapse.

  2. Garvin Jabusch says:

    Yes! I’m so glad you wrote this; I’ve been thinking similar thoughts since Osha said something like ‘all your swords are marching in the wrong direction.’

  3. Bart Flaster says:

    I’ve read them all. They have nothing to do with climate change, nothing whatsoever.

    Not a thing.

    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      I understand your Spooneristic name but what is the point of your comment? ME

  4. John says:

    Climate Change For Pussies!
    It’s a ripoff of the much superior triology called Helliconia by Brian Aldiss
    http://www.amazon.com/dp/0006482236

  5. Kevin says:

    As this author stated, he hasn’t read the books. They were written long before the “socialization” of climate change.

    The Song of Fire and Ice has NOTHING to do with climate change. People since the printing of the Bible have put their own stories/meanings to the tales of others, as people are doing with these books. Ask any 10th grader in “honors” English how many novels they read have Christ allegories. At this point, you can “find” on in almost every classic book. Now we’ve just evolved from Christ to whatever is most important in the geopolitical landscape of today.

    Read the story, learn the lessons from those characters, and don’t muck it up by laying your own story on top of another’s work.

  6. Jay Alt says:

    Your dictation software has evolved and grown the capacity for Freudian slippage. I am looking forward to more, like the term: “amoral compass.”

  7. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I am struck by “It’s a universe in which nobody is secure”. Feelings of insecurity have many causes but are exacerbated by a vague sense of being alone, without support. This in itself is enough to cause the world to look hostile and threatening. I think this is one reason, out of many, to react to warming with denial rather than acknowledge it as a fact and deal with it in a straight forward manner as prescribed by science, ME

  8. rollin says:

    Actually, the heat may last for 5000 years or more. Besides the long period for off-gassing of CO2 from the ocean, the planets albedo will have changed dramatically as the ice sheets reduce, arctic snow cover disappears and high mountain snows are gone. That alone can throw a watt or two of forcing in the heat direction, way more than enough to overcome the Milankovitch cycles.

    Our ancestors may have seen the last ice age for a very very long time.

  9. Raul M. says:

    Well, with climate change lasting so very many years and Florida becoming submerged some will need to develop a wet to reseed the area when temps come back down and the land emerges from the ocean. One way would be to make a shell of phase change material that will melt when the land emerges from the oceans and the temperature comes to winters. A phase change shell filled with various seeds of nature such as micro organisms that precursor ozone and oxygen etc. Just a thought of a show concerning the rebirth of a habitable planet.

    • Dennis Tomlinson says:

      Raul, in the distant future, when the poles, Greenland, and the high mountains re-glaciate, and Florida reemerges from under the sea, nature herself will reclaim and re-wild the land.
      But your idea of a phase change shell reminds me of an old Stephen Wright line – offered with a preemptive apology, alas much of the humor is in the delivery:
      “I once had a packet of instant water. I couldn’t figure out what to mix it with.”

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        Haven’t you seen the Looney Tunes cartoon? Powdered water from the Acme Corporation of Walla Walla, Washington, (sister city of Wagga Wagga, New South Wales) ‘Just add water’.

        • Dennis Tomlinson says:

          No sir, I’ve not seen that particular Looney Tune, though I once observed the Illinois State Assembly from the visitor’s gallery. But thanks for offering up Wagga Wagga, of which I also had not previously heard – yet another town simply too good to named but once. Now where did I put that bucket list?

  10. Raul M. says:

    Well, the words fit together somehow though.