A Song of Ice and Warming

The words of the Stark family are pretty straightforward. Unlike the other great houses they don’t “roar” or “not sow” or whatever it is the Tully’s do… swim, we’re assuming… Instead, the Stark words are a call to action and a reminder to never forget what waits just beyond the Wall. Yet, despite the ominous family motto, most of their southern and even northern cousins tend to forget that winter is indeed coming, and of all the fantastical elements in Game of Thrones, this denial of the inevitable is perhaps one of the most understandable. After all, it is a crime we are all guilty of in one form or another, and the people in Kings Landing and in other places have their hands full with worries other than snow and ice zombies.

Watchers on the Wall
The only group of people in all of Westeros who take the threat of the White Walkers seriously is the Night’s Watch. This chaste order of outcasts was established to maintain the Wall and “guard the realms of men.” The things they have been charged to guard against, White Walkers -or the Others- have mostly been relegated to fable and childhood nightmares. The Long Night occurred thousands of years in the past and most people in Westeros believe the tales to be nothing more than fantasy, like ghosts, goblins, or grumpkins. So even as the order urgently calls for more men and supply their pleas go unanswered by the great nations of the world.

It is unknown how many members of the Night’s Watch agree that the coming winter will bring a return of the White Walkers, but after the events of the past several seasons, we could probably agree that it would be at least 97%. Coincidentally, that is also the percentage of scientists that agree that climate change is real and it is happening. Like the Night’s Watch, our own chaste order of outcasts could also be considered a sort of “watcher on the wall.” It is their job to range the forests that lie north of all that is known. They are often forced to combat uncivilized wildling ideas in their quest to keep us safe, and worst of all they are seen as a necessary and minor annoyance by the ruling and the powerful of our land.

Perhaps, the allegory is a stretch, and George R. R. Martin never intended the connection to be made between his masterpiece work and the looming threat of global warming. However, authorial intent aside, the similarities are striking. His seminal work is based on an invisible looming force of change that is ultimately connected to intense and strange weather. The coming threat is slow and unbelievable, yet it threatens the known world, while politicians and armies squabble away unaffected and ultimately resistant to the knowledge of the approaching chaos.

You Know Nothing, Jon Snow
The threat in the fictional world is both staggering and real. Neither the Night’s Watch nor the audience can deny the existence of the White Walkers, but neither can we fault the Lannisters or the Tyrells for their willful ignorance. There is plenty we can fault them for, but maybe not for this. According to papers published by the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law, it is not simply a matter of “knowledge illiteracy” that stops a rational understanding of science fact. Most people unwittingly shape their world view and their identity based upon a multitude of ideologies, especially politics. Thus, when a person of an opposing view point presents arguments and even cold icy facts that prove something like White Walkers, certain people will tend to reject it and employ a confirmation bias. They will analyze the problem and extract the details that strengthen their already existing world view. In other words, people shape facts to confirm their opinions, instead of the other way around.

Even worse, confirmation bias seems to only get stronger with technology, like the Internet, where people can find like-minded individuals to shelter and grow their opinions from any opposition. In this way, we don’t really get a debate, so much as two separate jousting matches where each opponent is basically facing a straw man. Each knight may sometimes briefly pause in between charges to glare across a wide field at the opposing side, but there is never really any meaningful engagement or change.

Maybe where this analogy falls apart is the fact that the reluctance of the belief for the humans of Game of Thrones is almost understandable. With medieval level education and slow lines of bird-driven communication and rumor, they have the excuse of ignorance to ignore the fact that supposed make-believe monsters are in fact coming for them on the winds of a long winter chill. People in Dorn or the Riverlands, have no evidence to prove the existence of the Others. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for us and our looming threat. The evidence is all around us, and mounting faster than snow in Winterfell.

The Rains of Castamere
CO2 has passed the 400 part per million mark, which is the highest level since it has been in over 800,000 years, which only slightly longer ago than when Martin began writing his book series. Since the year 1900 temperatures around the world have increased almost a full degree, with the majority of the increase happening between 1970 and today. Even more damning, it is only the lower levels of the atmospheres that are increasing in temperature, thus confirming that it isn’t our sun that is getting hotter. If our current temperature change were due to solar activity then we would see a uniformed temperature increase throughout all levels of the atmosphere. The lower levels of the atmosphere is where the majority of CO2 is becoming trapped, and humans are responsible for 2,000 gigatons of it since 1870.

Much like the great houses of Game of Thrones, our own leaders have made it clear by their actions that they have more important things to worry about. Washington D. C. may not have the Sept of Baelor or the Red Keep, but the political maneuvering is no less real. Elections, wars, policy and cultural debates, sports, gun violence, and racism, we have no shortage of immediate problems that require attention. Climate change is nothing but a vague wind blowing down from the north. It seems like nothing to worry about, and nothing that can harm us, especially when there is so much around that can do us real harm. This kind of attitude is often classified as Optimism Bias, which is the belief that we, as individuals, are in less danger than those around us.

Optimism bias is why we think we will never get cancer or be in a plane crash. It’s why we think bad things only happen to other people and Sean Bean characters, and why we believe that any climate change problems will ultimately be a problem for the next generation and not us. Basically, if we can’t see the White Walkers than we do not believe they will do us any harm. That is just how our brain works, because our mental space is only so big.

Human beings only have so much concern they can fit in their head, whether it be about getting the kids to soccer practice, not getting fired from work, or making sure you are not shot to death by the musicians at your uncle’s wedding. Regardless of the reasons, it means we prioritize threats to our happiness and immediate well-being over future ones that seem distant and uncontrollable.

You Either Win or You Die
In 2011, 17 US citizens were killed worldwide in terrorist attacks, but 596,339 American were killed by heart disease, yet when it comes to issues that Americans care about from their elected officials most people will focus on terrorism as opposed to the vague fear of heart disease despite one being noticeably more likely than the other. It is also worth noting that approximately 600,000 deaths occurred worldwide as a result of weather-related natural disasters in the 90s, but again that is a statistic connected to a vague and uncontrollable menace. Our minds do not like thinking about problems we feel are out of our ability to influence. Our brain does not like to deal with problems we feel powerless to stop. That’s why we call it, an “Act of the God.” So we ignore them, and that means even people who acknowledge global warming may not see it as a threat. According to Scientific American, only 33% of the American general public believes climate change to be a serious problem, as opposed to 77% of scientists who say that is a serious problem.

Our leaders may not lose their head, but they know that in the Game of Elections you either win or you lose your pension. So, when every political move you make or enemy you create could mean your very real and immediate end in public office, it’s hard to push to for any real change against some far off threat, especially when their own constituency doesn’t even acknowledge it as a problem. Yet, rest assured, the night is dark and full of carbon dioxide, because if trends continue like this, by the end of this century Earth will be 4.7 F to 8.6 F degrees hotter (2.6 C to 4.8 C). The oceans will be a meter higher, and one third of all ocean life will be extinct. Unfortunately, unlike the Night’s Watch we will not be able to beat back our foes with weapons and dragon glass.

We like to talk to about George R. R. Martin’s epic tale in the light of our own past, equating situations, characters, and happenings to their historic counterparts, such as the events of the English War of the Roses. However, what if A Song of Ice and Fire and its subsequent HBO series is is not so much a nod to history but a true warning of what is to come? Any change will take all of us working together, and forcing this issue into prominence on the national stage. We will need to have an even greater resolve and a greater capacity for sacrifice and ingenuity, because our Wall will not stand forever.


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