Why Game of Thrones reminds me of climate change

I love Game of Thrones.  I love Game of Thrones even more now that I am re-watching it, which I began to do this Christmas. I love re-watching it because now I can brace myself for the horror that I know is coming. Now I can actually enjoy the story’s development and make peace with the demise of my favourite characters several episodes before they are bludgeoned, throttled or eviscerated.  Yes, I know it’s pathetic, but now I can mourn Ygritte days before she dies.  I can say a slow goodbye to the Red Viper.  I can console myself that, hey, the Starks really did have it coming, they were just never cunning enough to make it out of there with their throats intact.  But, above all else, I am realising that Game of Thrones reminds me of climate change.

The underlying premise of Game of Thrones is that, whilst the humans fight amongst themselves in alliances of increasingly bewildering complexity, they collectively face a threat so terrifying that most people are in denial about it. Whilst the various kingdoms hack and claw away at each other, they neglect the reports of approaching dragons and White Walkers, refusing to believe that they might one day be consumed by fire or ice.  Dragons, after all, have not been seen for centuries, and White Walkers have long since passed into the realm beyond myth. Those who first warn of the resurgence of either are dismissed as lunatics: one of them is even beheaded.  The reality is either too numbing or too fantastical to be accepted.

Thankfully, the fate of the first people to flag up climate change as an existential threat was not quite as grisly.  However, those researchers and their successors have attracted a certain degree of ridicule.  Now, though, their work is receiving depressing vindication.  Today, I read an article in The Guardian, entitled “Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk, say scientists”. In the words of one of the bearers of bad news, Professor Will Steffen:

“It’s fairly safe to say that we haven’t seen conditions in the past similar to ones we see today and there is strong evidence that there [are] tipping points we don’t want to cross..If the Earth is going to move to a warmer state, 5-6C warmer, with no ice caps, it will do so and that won’t be good for large mammals like us. People say the world is robust and that’s true, there will be life on Earth, but the Earth won’t be robust for us.”

He continued:

“Some people say we can adapt due to technology, but that’s a belief system, it’s not based on fact. There is no convincing evidence that a large mammal, with a core body temperature of 37C, will be able to evolve that quickly. Insects can, but humans can’t and that’s a problem…It’s clear the economic system is driving us towards an unsustainable future and people of my daughter’s generation will find it increasingly hard to survive.  History has shown that civilisations have risen, stuck to their core values and then collapsed because they didn’t change. That’s where we are today.”

Back in 2008, when I first became truly aware of the danger posed by climate change, there was a period where I read every paper and watched every video on the issue that I could find.  I attended a couple of conferences, and found the science so frightening in its implications that I remember sitting there and writing, during a particularly startling speech, “it feels like the autumn of the world”.

Just as in Game of Thrones, it now seems that winter is coming.  I remember howling about environmental degradation to anyone who would listen, and performing a poem, ‘The Creep’, that really only seemed to shock people further.  I have never felt so impotent as I did then, as I tried to network with scientists and politicians, trying to nudge those wealthy philanthropists whom I had encountered in my work to embrace the issue.  And I felt that I had failed, that I could not convey the urgency of what I was reading and seeing.  And so, like a Game of Thrones episode that was just too gut-wrenching to watch, I found some way to tune out my fears of climate change, to change the channel.

And here we are, in 2014, with the environmental outlook increasingly bleak. Unlike Game of Thrones, though, this will eventually be a screen from whose unsettling images none of us can look away.


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