Winter Is Here: How Game Of Thrones Inspires Environmental Discussion

"Game of Thrones" has sparked debates about dozens of different hot topics and climate change is certainly one of them. From White Walkers to Wildlings, its seems like almost every character has played a role in creating a metaphor for today's changing environment. 


May 18 2019, Updated 9:08 a.m. ET

With millions of viewers and multimillion-dollar budgets, HBO's "Game of Thrones" has been breaking records since its first season. It’s also probably one of the most theorized and dissected storylines in modern tv history. One unlikely but compelling theory fans often suggest is that the storyline is a metaphor for modern day global warming.  

This theory is based on the overarching storyline where a dangerous force is descending from the north to wipe out the human race while major political leaders are too busy fighting to listen to the warnings. Even the original book title hints at a war between “fire and ice” which can be interpreted as a conflict between extreme elements. 

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Even if it was never intended to touch on modern day climate change issues, the show has sparked a healthy discussion about it. Teachers and activists alike are glad the metaphor is encouraging people to debate real life issues. Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State expressed, “Scientists and science communicators need to take advantage of cultural references that allow people to understand the nature of the challenge.” In "Game of Thrones As Theory," Charli Carpenter, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, argues that, “the pursuit of short-term objectives distracts players from the truly pressing issues of human survival and stability.”

For those who are not so convinced there's a link, let's take a closer look at the analogies sprinkled throughout the show. **Spoiler alerts ahead**

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The general theme of the story focuses on the effects of the changing climate. 

For the people of Westeros, the Long Night was something that happened thousands of years ago. Similarly, major climate changes are cyclical and have not occurred in recent history. Until now. The show begins with a prosperous long summer coming to a close. In Westeros, seasons are unpredictable and can last up to 10 years. Today, seasons are being disrupted and have become more irregular. Some scientists suggest this is because of the C02 trapping heat in the atmosphere.  

The main conflict in Game of Thrones started when the First Men arrived in Westeros thousands of years ago and the Children of the Forest created the White Walkers to defend themselves. Tampering with nature backfired and things were made significantly worse for everyone since then. The negative effects of meddling with nature have long been the battle cry of environmentalists who warn politicians not be short sighted with their environmental policies.  

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The longer the leaders of Westeros ignore the White Walkers the more of a risk they become.

Much like modern politicians, Westeros noblemen spend most of their time in petty political fights. The White Walkers grow more dangerous the longer they are ignored. Even though most viewers believe the show centers around who will ultimately sit on the iron throne, some argue the real conflict is really about the climate changing and the disastrous ramifications it brings with it. When the protagonists try to argue the threat of the White Walkers, most of the leaders deny their existence completely.  

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Even after accepting their existence and threat to the human race, many leaders merely just hope the problem goes away on its own. For example, Queen Cersei was *spoiler alert* nearly mauled by a wight in the Season 7 finale, but essentially decided to do nothing about them. In the U.S., many accuse leaders of not accepting the reality of climate change and are frustrated by their lack of action despite the mounting evidence of C02 problems. Jon Snow expresses his exasperation in Season 7, "How do I convince people who don't know me that an enemy they don't believe in is going to kill them all?”

Characters in the show parallel modern day scientists.

The Night’s Watch is a group of guardians entrusted to keep the world safe from White Walkers. Once a member of the team, Sam Tarly is depicted as a bookish, unlikely hero who eventually gathers data on how to combat the White Walker threat. He spends most of his time studying and learning as much as he can about the enemy despite constant ridicule from others.

Similarly, climate experts have faced criticism from climate change deniers. Other scholars in the story slowly come around to the possible impending threat but hold on to the belief that it’ll all work out in the end. In the show, the Archmaester represents this group as he admits Tarly may be right but tells him not to overreact so much, “Every winter that ever came has ended.” 

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The White Walkers live under the ice in northernmost point in the world and pose a serious threat to humanity. Wherever they go, the climate changes drastically as they bring with them death and destruction. As the group gradually reclaims more and more land to the south, people can’t help but wonder what drives this seemingly unstoppable force. Like climate change, there is no obvious motivation fueling their slow but steady progression. 

They also have zombie polar bears. That’s right, we’re talking about dead polar bears. It’s safe to say that the White Walkers can be interpreted as climate change personified. Yet, they are generally ignored by everyone south of their homeland because no one in known history has seen them in thousands of years so they no longer believe they exist. 

It also depicts the displacement of people who experience the changes first. 

The Wildlings, a group of tribes in the north, are pushed south by the threat of White Walkers. In the episode “Hardhome" the Wildlings resemble refugees fleeing a natural disaster and many are wiped out in what seems to be a strong wind after they are locked out behind gates.

Today, The United Nations Refugee Agency has stated "Displacement linked to climate change is not a future hypothetical – it’s a current reality…21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related sudden onset hazards." Pacific Islanders and tribes in the Arctic are already feeling the negative effects of climate change.  

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George R.R. Martin claims it wasn't intentional.

Despite the many similarities from this fictional world and our own modern one, it doesn't seem like it was George R.R. Martin's intent to make a social commentary on climate change. While he has drawn inspiration for most of his storyline from historical moments like the War of the Roses and incorporated countless pieces of history, he said, “If I really wanted to write about climate change in the 21st century I’d write a novel about climate change in the 21st century.”

Yet, only a few years later he also said, “I mean, we have things going on in our world right now like climate change, that’s, you know, ultimately a threat to the entire world… You’d think everybody would get together. This is something that can wipe out possibly the human race. So I wanted to do an analogue not specifically to the modern-day thing but as a general thing with the structure of the book.” 

Whatever your thoughts on the analogy between this fantasy world and the modern one, we are still waiting to see who will win the battle between the seemingly unstoppable White Walkers and the citizens of Westeros. 

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