28 Oct Winter is [Not] Coming: Game of Thrones as an Allegory for Climate Change & International Politics
[Chris Carpenter is an associate at an international law firm, where her practice involves international arbitration and international financial litigation matters. The views expressed belong the author alone, and do not represent the views of her employer.]
“There’s only one war that matters. The Great War. And it is here.”Jon Snow
Jon Snow and climate scientists have a lot in common. Both wear long coats—of sorts. Both have careers that are strongly dependent on what happens when massive blocks of ice crumble. And both have been burdened with the indescribable of task of having to convey to their respective world populations that civilization as they know it is at risk of ending. Soon.
The GOT-Climate Change Allegory
For the eight years Game of Thrones aired on HBO, and on streaming platforms thereafter, tens of millions of viewers in over 150 countries tuned in to the show. Based on the fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, the series contains multiple storylines following the members of several noble families engaged in a war of succession, with the objective of securing the Iron Throne—a throne made of countless swords melded together—which would deem them the Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. However, amid these interpersonal—which transcend into interstate—conflicts, a greater threat looms. One of these family members, Jon Snow, one of the show’s few unfaltering protagonists and the illegitimate son of the House of Stark, learns early in the show that above the massive wall of ice maintained and guarded by his House in the northern-most kingdom of Westeros, an immense danger is amassing. Called the White Walkers, an army of zombie-like ice men that are formed from dead bodies by a fantastical power held by their leader, the Night King, are beginning to march South towards the wall, and with the capacity to destroy every person living in each of the Seven Kingdoms. However, this existential threat goes wholly unbeknown and unacknowledged to the majority of the show’s characters until its eighth and final season, which leaves the viewers frustratingly watching as Jon Snow battles for seven seasons trying to break the news of humanity’s greatest threat. (The author does not discuss the resolution of this threat in Season 8, as she does not consider it canon). This is compellingly juxtaposed to the unaffected, petty, and deeply violent conflicts the noble houses wage against one another.
Over its tenure on-air, spectators calling out the parallels between the White Walker plotline and the climate crisis abounded (see here, here and here for some examples). This comparison was even acknowledged by the book series’ author, JRR Martin, at one point. When the lens of international relations and politics is layered over this backdrop, we see that the comparison extends even further than the media coverage of the show ever indicated.
At the opening of the series, the previous occupier of the Iron Throne, King Robert, is dead, there is no clear head of the global order, and the various houses are competing to be the one to fill that void. While the series first aired in 2011, and so this comparison may not have been as poignantly made then, by the time the series ended in 2019, this opening dynamic had begun to bear much more serious comparison to the state of the world in light of declining U.S. hegemony, and conflicting geopolitical forces already working to assert a neo-realist type of dominance and fill the void. (A comparison of Putin here to everyone’s favorite character to hate, King Geoffrey, seems too appealing to omit).
Intersections with International Law & Politics
The series contains within it comparisons to pivotal aspects of the climate crisis that go well beyond the “Don’t Look Up”-esque attitude of criticizing humanities’ active avoidance of a foreseeable and preventable natural opponent that will otherwise inevitably cause our destruction. These subtler analogies to the nuances of addressing climate change are woven into the series’ plot arc, and include issues of climate migration, mis- and disinformation, and a prisoners’ dilemma on a global scale.
Climate Migration: The Wildlings’ Story
The Wildlings are a migratory clan that live North of the Wall, and they are the original way Jon Snow learns of and is made to understand the White Walker threat. As the White Walkers march South, the Wildlings are forced to abandon their ancestral home and flee South of the Wall, leading to further territorial conflict between them and the inhabitants of Westeros, the kingdom into which they have fled.
In our real-world parallel, we see the story of the Wildlings in those impacted by climate migration. Like the Wildlings, whose proximity to the White Walkers caused them to be the first to flee, climate migrants are those living in geographic regions that are disproportionately impacted by climate change, such as small island developing states (“SIDS”). And like the Wildlings who are met with conflict when entering the foreign state of Westeros, with whom they have historically conflicted, climate migrants are often forced to flee to nearby states where their reception may take the form of further conflict. The specter of the White Walkers marching closer evokes a similar idea to the steadily rising sea-levels and expanding Sahara making once-populous geographies virtually uninhabitable.
Unlike the wholly unprepared state of Westeros, the international system of the real world has a variety of legal mechanisms that can be leveraged to facilitate climate migrants’ relocation to safety. This includes the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Furthermore, the U.N. Human Rights Committee has found it is “unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by the climate crisis.”
Unfortunately, in practice these mechanisms have not yielded as much resolution as one might hope. The threshold for classifying an individual as an asylum seeker is standardly very difficult to meet. This is challenged further by the fact that the majority of international legal mechanisms surrounding migration and asylum do not recognize climate migrants as a type of protected person under these instruments. Thus, while the real world has, in theory, legal structures and institutions that might be able to create more peaceful means of climate migration than those demonstrated in Game of Thrones—and there have been some promising examples of this in practice—in the aggregate, it is unclear if humanity is noticeably more prepared for this unfolding than the Kingdom of Westeros.
When Jon Stark begins his quest South of The Wall to share his knowledge of the White Walker threat with the other noble houses, he is met with the hurdle of disbelief. One of the first rulers he seeks to convince, Daenerys Targaryen —one of the show’s most famous characters, also known as the “Mother of Dragons,” due to the three large, flying, fire-breathing dragons that she raised from hatchlings—refuses to believe Jon’s story at first; and later only agrees on the contingency that Jon Snow “bend the knee” and submit his Kingdom of Westeros to her rule. In lamenting this response to Tyrion Lannister, one of Daenerys’ closest advisors and brother to the series’ constant antagonist, Cersei Lannister, Jon is met with the following explanation from Tyrion:
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… 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.
This statement gets at the heart of the information challenge psychologists, environmental scientists, and others have studied exhaustively in relation to climate change. As Stephen Lewandowsky explains, climate change “challenges our cognitive abilities because the effect of the accumulation of emissions is difficult to understand.” Resisting this understanding holds further appeal because to acknowledge the strength of this threat would then require fundamentally altering the way in which society operates. This creates fertile ground for deliberate manipulation by those in power, who rely on the spreading of mis- and disinformation about climate change for their political advantage.
The fruits of this mis- and disinformation campaign are evident in U.S. party politics. In spite of over half a century of consensus from over 90% of scientists that global warming is both real, and caused by human activity, as of 2016 only 48% of Americans polled in a Pew study believed this to be true—with only 15% of Republicans accepting that reality. In the years since 2016, the world has continued to see violent conflict, political upheaval, economic crisis and restoration…but virtually no meaningful, global activity in confronting the climate crisis.
The Prisoners’ Dilemma of Trust in International Politics
Every syllabus for an international security course (or season finale of Love Island) likely involves a lesson on the “prisoner’s dilemma”—it is a question of trust, or the absence of it. In a prisoner’s dilemma, two suspects are interrogated separately, and each are offered the same deal: rat out your partner, and they go to jail while you go free. The suspects’ best option is to say nothing, and trust that the other will do to same, in which event both go free. One could rat out the other, and go free, while their partner stays imprisoned. Or, there is the option of mutual destruction, where both are implicated in the crime and neither go free.
Game of Thrones plays out this dilemma as the heads of all the houses are shown a real-life (sort of) White Walker, and the wheels are put in motion for a united response. United, that is, save for the reliable antagonist of Cersei Lannister. Rather than joining the other houses as their armies march North, she plans to invade their defenseless territories and claim them for the House of Lannister.
In international politics, a lack of trust—and arguably, a lack of trustworthiness—between states creates an aversion to moving toward meaningful action against the climate crisis on the faith that other states will follow-suit, understanding that this effort must be fairly unanimous to be effective. To take on the substantial financial, infrastructural, and political challenges of reorganizing a state to exist in a climate-neutral manner is only worth-while to one state if it is not acting alone. The fear of Cersei Lannister-like behavior acts as a powerful disincentive for proactive climate measures at the state level.
The international relations and international law scholarship have amassed substantial literature discussing strategies for creating an international response to climate change. However, no literature has reached into homes to create empathy for those on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and communicate the demand for collective action, with the same force as Game of Thrones—whose climactic episode The Long Night in season eight was consumed by over twelve million viewers.
Game of Thrones functions as a powerful tool to demonstrate multiple facets of lacking climate action—from the repeated defeat and disillusionment experienced by those seeking to rally a collective response, to the surge of hope following an agreement to act, to the decision of certain nefarious actors to deliberately feign their cooperation and seek to manipulate the responses others for their own material benefit.
There is further power in this mode of portraying themes surrounding collective action in a Sci-Fi television series that is so thoroughly apolitical, because it creates a vehicle for these themes to be viewed and contemplated by a wider audience than who might regularly watch more liberal media sources where these topics are discussed. A GOT viewer can feel Jon Snow’s desperation as he shares news of the Army of the Dead, his urgency and his anxiety to be believed. They can be outraged with him at his peers’ indifference and lack of action. Viewers can feel angered by Cersei’s betrayal and relieved by Daenerys’ agreement to lend her vast resources to the cause. And perhaps one day, when seeing news footage of a yet another, stronger, tropical storm ravaging a coastal town being met with political leaders’ snide indifference, this same viewer will recall the GOT scene where Cersei reveals her diabolical plan to her brother (ehm), Jaime, and maybe this will spark a similar sense of anger and betrayal in that viewer, which would not have otherwise appeared.
There are few characters in the global narrative surrounding the need to confront the climate crisis that do not have a doppelganger waiting for them in the Game of Thrones series. At a time when confronting this crisis is dire as ever, such cultural focal points that make understanding the need for a collective response more accessible are as timely as they are powerful.