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

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_.