Can ‘Game of Thrones’ get people to talk about climate change?

By Brittany Patterson | 04/27/2015 08:33 AM EDT

As fans of “Game of Thrones” well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.

"Game of Thrones" is becoming part of the small but growing genre of "climate fiction," or "cli-fi," to those using fantasy stories to talk about science.

"Game of Thrones" is becoming part of the small but growing genre of "climate fiction," or "cli-fi," to those using fantasy stories to talk about science. Photo by Helen Sloan, courtesy of HBO.

Article updated at 10:40 a.m. EDT.

As fans of "Game of Thrones" well know, winter is coming. But they might not realize some people are using the HBO megahit’s catchphrase to spark a conversation about shifting weather patterns brought about by climate change.

For a handful of bloggers, the White Walkers — scary ice creatures that live beyond the wall guarding the fictional land of Westeros — symbolize climate change itself, while the power struggles for the "iron throne" represent the U.S. political battle between Democrats and Republicans.


The parallels between the television drama and both the political and scientific discussions related to climate change are striking, said Manjana Milkoreit, a research fellow at Arizona State University. Milkoreit conducted an analysis of how the television show is being used by a handful of "scientists, science communicators and geeks" to break through the hard-to-explain science to engage Americans about the dangers of rising global temperatures.

Milkoreit found six blogs — both personal and on news sites — published in 2013, and eight in 2014, about half of which focus solely on climate change. More examples could arise during the program’s current fifth season, she thinks.

"The authors have an instinctive sense of the type of communication about climate change that we need, and that we don’t have, and they’re trying to use ‘Game of Thrones’ to get popular engagement with climate change, something that is really difficult to do," she said.

For those not familiar with the show, a quick primer: "Game of Thrones" is a fantasy-drama that weaves a number of parallel storylines following a host of ruling families as they struggle for power on the continent of Westeros. At the same time, north of Westeros, sinister and terrible things lie beyond a gigantic wall of ice, guarded by a group called the "Night’s Watch," whose job is to keep the bad things out.

Milkoreit said the comparison offers ways to explain the complicated world of climate politics to those who may not have the patience to study climate science, or who find denial a more comforting way to deal with the future of more extreme weather that most climate scientists predict.

"Storytelling is really a fundamental tool in the human toolkit of interaction," she said. "They’re using the show and the excitement it creates, the attachment you form to the characters, or emotional reactions to the show as leverage to create a reaction to climate change."

‘Cli-fi’ becomes a teaching tool

By using the drama and intrigue of a story like "Game of Thrones," the bloggers Milkoreit identified are tapping into a bigger trend of fiction taking on climate change.

"Climate fiction," or "cli-fi" as it’s known, is similar to "sci-fi," but the science in this case is climate change-focused, and the narratives are often set in dystopian or post-apocalyptic worlds ravaged by global warming. It’s a relatively new genre of literature but has taken off in recent years (ClimateWire, May 2, 2014).

This year, six classes dedicated to the budding genre are being taught on college campuses across the United States. It’s also gone global, with classes being taught in Australia and Britain.

Temple University Ph.D. student Ted Howell is teaching an English class this semester titled "Cli-fi: Science Fiction, Climate Change and Apocalypse."

Howell said he’s been following the rise of cli-fi for the last year and a half through its ascent in the news. When he was asked to teach a popular fiction English class, he thought it would be the perfect opportunity to delve into climate change and science fiction.

At the beginning of the semester, Howell had the students read two technical pieces about the nuts and bolts of climate change science.

"We had many of those moments of distress about the severity of the problem," he said. "I think now that we’re moving into the portion of the semester where we are reading fictions set in the future and dealing with climate change and political friction as a result of corruption over resources, the students are seeing people are still living their lives. It’s not that the collapse of civilization is the death of humanity."

Granted these are fictional works, but Howell said the ability for the students to connect to the characters actually makes the impacts of climate change more tangible and immediate for them.

"It strips away the feeling that it’s hard to imagine or care," he said.

Whether investment in characters surviving in a climate change-impacted world translates to direct action in someone’s life, Howell said he couldn’t say.

"I do think as a result of reading all of these books students are emerging having a much better understanding not just of the facts and science, but that the debate is not just politicians disagreeing with one another, it’s about the future of our world itself," he said.

Tapping into the zeitgeist

Hollywood, too, has caught on to the rising interest in fictional works that tackle climate change (ClimateWire, June 11, 2014). Nearly a decade ago, "The Day After Tomorrow" proved there was money to be made in climate change disaster dramas, by netting more than $544 million in box-office sales worldwide. Films such as "Snowpiercer" and "Interstellar" are more recent examples.

Last week, cli-fi and world leaders collided at the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund 2015 Spring Meeting at a screening of the soon-to-be-released film "Chloe and Theo," about an Inuit man who travels to New York to warn the world about climate change (ClimateWire, April 16).

And last year, HBO commissioned a miniseries of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy with director Darren Aronofsky. A release date for the series has not been announced, but the trilogy is often cited as a quintessential piece of cli-fi.

It’s a trend that doesn’t surprise Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who said the rise of cli-fi reflects the zeitgeist of our time and much deeper cultural narratives and anxieties.

"We have huge anxiety about the future in this country," he said. "Climate change is one of those things that has people nervous about the world that is hurtling to us right now, not just 50 years from now."

Leiserowitz has been studying climate change and communication for years and says one of the largest failings of the environmental community has been how to communicate climate change to the public. Often, it’s been framed with complicated charts and numbers, which he said are great for those who rely on the analytic part of the brain, but not the way most people meaningfully engage with an issue.

"People want a good story, that’s why we flip on a series at night like ‘Game of Thrones,’" he said. "We don’t watch it to talk about climate change. … If you get some climate change perspective along the way, then that’s great."

Milkoreit, at Arizona State University, agrees and said although her analysis of "Game of Thrones" bloggers represents only a small cultural phenomenon, she said their tactic could be the key to bringing more people into the climate change conversation.