The monster HBO hit Game of Thrones has long been seen as a climate change metaphor or parable, albeit one filled with nudity and violence. After all, a major theme from the start has been the fact that the climate is about to change for the worse in a way that endangers everyone.
But, for me, it’s only now, in the middle of the show’s seventh and penultimate season, that the metaphor has finally started to come into focus. At last, Game of Thrones is earning the label “CliFi,” science fiction or fantasy with a climate change twist.
The show is finally having major characters focus on the central issue of climate change: How do the people who know the change is coming — and that it’s more dangerous than anyone realizes — persuade the skeptics to believe them? What kind of evidence is needed to make people put aside their near-term concerns and work together against a much bigger, but less obvious, one than threatens everyone? In fact, in the penultimate episode of the season, one of the main characters says, “You have to see it to know.”
From the very start of the story, the people of Westeros were facing the threat of impending climate change — a long period of very cold weather — and the grave dangers accompanying it, like the White Walkers and their Army of the Dead.
“Winter is Coming” is both the family motto of the noble House Stark in the north and the title of the show’s first episode. The defenders against the White Walkers are called the Night’s Watch. The various factions who represent different parts of the country are too busy fighting for power to pay any attention to warnings about climate change and its grim consequences. (Or maybe that’s America.)
For the people of Earth, the imminent climate change we face is a long period of increasingly hot weather and the grave danger accompanying it, like sea level rise, Dust-Bowlification, and deadly heat waves.
“Global warming is coming,” as we’ve been warned for decades by the noble house of climate scientists, who generally get ignored, bullied, and even slaughtered at weddings. Oh wait, that’s the Starks. Maybe the scientists are more like the Night’s Watch, stoically defending against the climate science deniers and disinformers, whose undead talking points are almost almost impossible to kill.
Vox has a video explainer:
But, really, for all of the tomes written about this metaphor, until this season’s renewed focus on the real threat — winter is here and the Army of the Dead is nigh — I thought the writers had lost this thread.
For most of the early seasons, winter didn’t seem to be coming very fast, and the show’s focus was on the internecine warfare among the families, epic battles, brutal fights to the death, and, of course, nudity. More recently, the focus has been the impending showdown between the (mostly) good queen, Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, and the (very) evil queen, Cersei Lannister, the Donald Trump of Westeros (if Trump were a brilliant, sadistic, incestuous megalomaniac).
But, finally, with the two most recent episodes, a major thrust of the show has shifted to whether the (relatively) “good guys” led by Jon Stark, can actually come up with the concrete evidence needed to persuade the two warring queens that the threat is real, imminent, and what they need to focus on to survive.
In this season’s third episode, Jon asks Tyrion Lannister (Cersei’s dwarf brother, now adviser to Daenerys) the defining question: “How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?”
Jon is as frustrated as any climate scientist. He had risen to head of the Night’s Watch, and now is King of the North. He’s actually seen and fought a battle with the White Walkers, who are led by the Night King. And he saw them raise an Army of the Dead — wights, or reanimated corpses — from those who died in the battle. Like climate change, this is going to be an impossible fight to win without everyone’s help.
Tyrion gives two classic explanations for the skepticism with which Daenerys greets Jon: “She’s not about to head north to fight an enemy she’s never seen on the word of a man she doesn’t know,” and “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.”
In Episode 5, Jon figures out that the only way he is going to convince skeptics, especially Cersei, is by providing irrefutable evidence. For climate scientists, that often involves taking skeptical politicians up to the frozen north to see Greenland melting before their very eyes (though even that doesn’t always work).
Since that isn’t feasible here, Jon decides to take a team up to the frozen north to capture a wight to bring back as evidence to persuade the queens, particularly Cersei. On Earth, it’s not clear what evidence could persuade Trump and his team of climate science deniers. They deny even the most well-established science.
But we know Cersei prides herself on being a survivor, a calculating realist. Indeed, she appears to be open to persuasion regarding the threat from the Army of the Dead in part because she doesn’t think she can defeat Daenerys and her dragons directly.
If only the deniers in the White House were so calculating…
UPDATE: In the penultimate episode of the season, Daenerys actually flies her dragons up north to rescue Jon and his team from the Night King and the Army of the Dead. And at the end, when Jon apologizes to her for what happened, the loss of one her dragons, saying, “I wish we’d never gone,” she replies, “I don’t. If we hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have seen. You have to see it to know. Now I know.”
She saw evidence and now she knows–and she pledges to Jon that she will join him in this fight.
Finally, in the previews for the season finale, we see Jon go to his enemy Cersei, who is responsible for the deaths of so many of his family, and say, “there’s only one war that matters. And it is here.”
There truly is only one war that matters. And it is here.