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Does Game of Thrones Contain a Stark Warning About Climate Change?

Photo by The Costume Guild | CC BY 2.0

Many people who care about climate change often complain that although the issue may get discussed in the inside pages of serious news publications it rarely cuts through to popular culture. For something as momentous as humans threatening the habitability of the only planet suitable for human habitation, climate change hasn’t really had the airtime one would expect.

However, scratch under the surface and we can see that one of the biggest small screen blockbusters of the last few years, Game of Thrones, is an almost perfect metaphor for the politics of the climate crisis.

The popular adaptation of author George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire has been showing its potential as a modern-day climate fable, but it really hit home last week.

In the seventh season’s third episode, “The Queen’s Justice,” hero Jon Snow, asks Tyrion Lannister: “How do I convince people who don’t know me that an enemy they don’t believe in is coming to kill them all?” Well quite Jon. We environmentalists feel your pain.

Winter Is Coming

Now this next bit contains a few spoilers (of the TV show, not the fate of the planet) so if you’re planning to catch up with the series you might want to stop reading here.

The threat to which Jon Snow refers are the White Walkers, the spectral horrors from beyond The Wall who command an insatiable army of the undead that are destroying all before them and are threatening the land of Westeros.

Snow has, during a foray north, witnessed first-hand their destructive might and now seeks to warn his fellow humans of the danger they are in.  This peril from the icy reaches north of the wall even has a climactic warning: ‘Winter is coming’ caution the members of House Stark.

However, Snow’s desperate pleas and warnings of doom fail to move Dragon Queen Daenerys Targaryen, who has her sights set on conquering Westeros and taking the the Iron Throne from the cruel Cersei Lannister.

An allegorical climate change point

The endless infighting between the various factions of Westeros, at each other’s throats in a bid for power while ignoring the existential threat to the north, feels remarkably similar to the state of global climate politics. Some of the leaders of the great houses even deny the existence of White Walkers altogether.

This echoes the attitude to climate change we now hear from Donald Trump and the leaders in America’s House of Representatives .  As with the global climate fight, the question in Game of Thrones remains: will the Westerosi unite in time to tackle their real foe?

I don’t know if the series is deliberately making an allegorical climate change point but it raises the question about how we best communicate the problem.

When Jon Snow asks what he can do to convince people of the danger they are in, Tyrion gives the following reply: “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.”

He says of Daenerys: “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. After a single meeting, it’s not a reasonable thing to ask. So, do you have anything reasonable to ask?”

For many people, climate change is too big to fully grasp or feel like they can do anything about it. And like someone drowning in debt and unpaid bills, even if they did, it’s so horrible it’s simpler to try and ignore it and hope the problem goes away.

The messenger and the message

The debate rages about the best way to communicate climate change, the latest wave most recently sparked by a striking but doom-laden article in New York Magazine.  I think there is a place for the ‘stark’ warning, but it’s important people retain a sense of agency and hope.

The two best things I’ve learned about communicating global warming were from George Marshall of Climate Outreach, who wrote the book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.

First, the messenger is often as important as the message.  Jon Snow’s message might be clear (the White Walkers are coming to kill you all) but it’s not likely that he’s going to convince many people who don’t already believe him to be a trustworthy source.

Likewise, anti-capitalist climate activists are unlikely to be the best messengers to convince centre-right conservatives, however much they shout about climate justice (especially not if their message involves replacing markets with a socialist revolution).

The second thing is to communicate that acting on climate change doesn’t mean you have to become a sandal wearing hippy. Instead, acting on climate change makes them more like the person they want to be, whether that is a better Muslim, capitalist or grandparent.

Not everyone wants to identify as an environmentalist and they don’t have to. The Lannisters don’t need to become Starks in order to fight the White Walkers, but they do both need to act.

The fate of Westeros remains up for grabs, as does the human story of climate change.  There is all to play for if we can get the message right.

This article original appeared in The Ecologist.

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