An invisible force threatens to destroy life as we know it, yet society remains largely indifferent. A small group of devoted soldiers, who know the true strength of this threat, warn us of the horror to come. But alas, their warnings are to no avail. Sound familiar? Fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which returns this Sunday for its fifth season, will surely think of the Night’s Watch. For the uninitiated, those are the black-clad warriors who struggle to convince the rest of the realm that everyone is in imminent danger. Ignore the fact that the source of that danger is some zombie-like creatures called White Walkers, and and it might start to sound like something that we’re grappling with in our own dragon-less world: climate change.
In 2012, Arizona State University’s Manjana Milkoreit was struck by the meaningful dialogue transpiring online about the overlaps between Game of Thrones and climate change. These bloggers weren’t simply talking about the show, Milkoreit tells me, but instead were using metaphors to instigate real political conversations—conversations about responsibility, indifference, activism, and the future.
Fans of the show have surely connected the dots already, but the metaphor goes: Winter and the merciless White Walkers represent climate change; the Night’s Watch—the only people who know the extent of the horror Westeros will soon face—are climate scientists; and the status-obsessed capital city of King’s Landing represents an ignorant and inactive public and/or government.
The response, or lack thereof, in Westeros mirrors our own political inaction.
While, of course, Game of Thrones’ Winter spells years of cold darkness, and climate change, most likely, will take the form of heat and drought, they overlap in terms of their potential cultural and political ramifications.
“Winter in Westeros is a season of expected danger, associated with major, long-term changes in temperature, life style, agriculture, and food supplies,” Milkoreit, whose work has appeared in Ecology and Society, Climatic Change, and SAGE Open, writes in her soon-to-be-published paper. "[Climate change] is associated with life-style changes and discomfort, challenges for agriculture and food supply. Instead of mystical dangers, there are a range of unknown and mainly uncontrollable risks.”
The response, or lack thereof, in Westeros mirrors our own political inaction. “The people [in Westeros] tend to ignore this threat, tend to not pay attention to the people on the wall who send these messages,” Milkoreit says. “Instead, they are fighting over political power and struggling to run the continent and worrying about foreign enemies who have weapons of mass destruction—like dragons.”
There is a shared ignorance between our worlds, Milkoreit notes: Both Westeros and modern Western culture worry about other, shallower problems; we're both short sighted; and neither people invests enough energy in dealing with climate change. Politics, in each case, is the primary hindrance to any consequential preparations for the impending change. On various blogs, Milkoreit saw these types of conversations arise within the context of Game of Thrones, but quickly transition to realistic discussions of action necessary to combat climate change.
“This shared cultural experience—passion for a TV show—becomes the central reference point, the foundation, for this kind of communication,” Milkoreit writes in her paper. “It connects bloggers and their audiences in a unique way, creating a shared set of ideas, stories, images and emotions that are independent of worldview, party affiliation, gender or geography.”
Shows like Game of Thrones, while filled with dragons and magic, spark meaningful dialogue.
Looking beyond Game of Thrones, Milkoreit maintains that fiction—or, more specifically, the imagination—can have a major effect on present politics. In fact, this time last year, she started the one-of-a-kind Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at ASU, which, in her own words, aims to “really to explore the role of imagination—or lack thereof—in responding to climate change.”
People tend to have a very limited imagination about what a climate-changed future might look like. Even climate thought leaders and scientists lack imagination when looking forward, she says. But shows like Game of Thrones, while filled with dragons and magic, spark meaningful dialogue.
“I think this show with these blogs might have an effect on how people think about climate change, and how people imagine their futures—futures they want, futures they don’t want—and that kind of imagination might affect how they make choices in the present,” Milkoreit says. “It’s a very complex undertaking to integrate scientific understanding, beliefs about how worlds change—social worlds, technologic worlds—and how those things play out over long periods of time. I think pop culture and things like Game of Thrones might help people do that.”