'Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau on White Walkers as Climate Change Metaphor, Why Strong Female Characters on 'GoT' Should be Norm

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Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is photographed for Self Assignment in San Sebastian, Spain. 

U.N. ambassador and Frank Ocean fan was at the Social Good Summit in New York Sunday night (Sept. 17).

While TV stars lit up the Emmys red carpet in Hollywood Sunday evening (Sept. 17), one of the highest paid television actors, Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) was on the opposite coast, speaking about climate change as part of his work as a United Nations Development Programme Global Ambassador. (GoT didn’t air during Emmys eligibility period this year.)

Billboard caught up with the actor, 47, before he took the stage at the Social Good Summit at New York City's 92nd Street Y, one of the sponsors of the 7th annual event which gathers world leaders and activists to discuss the use of technology for positive social impact and kicks off the United Nations General Assembly (Mashable, United Nations Foundation and United Nations Development Programme also support). 

The theme of this year's event focused on actionable change for bettering the world by 2030, which for Coster-Waldau means putting resources toward gender equality and the environment. "If we fail there," says the father of two, "all bets are off." 

How has being a father to two daughters impacted your sense of urgency around the issues you advocate for?

I obviously want them to grow up in a world where they are allowed to make whatever choice they want to make with their lives. We live in a country [Denmark] where there’s a very high degree of equality. But that’s not the case everywhere. On Wednesday I’m participating in the launch of the EU and the UN Spotlight Initiative on gender-based violence. I was shocked at some of the statistics. One in three women all over the world will experience violence or sexual violence in their lifetime. It’s a huge problem. More than 700 million women live in countries where it’s not illegal to beat up your spouse. There are so many numbers that are staggering. It’s amazing that there are more than 150 countries that still have legislation that discriminate against women.

So many strong women are represented on Game of Thrones. What message does that send to younger generations of viewers?

We talk about that, which of course means that it’s unusual. It’s something you want to raise as a question because, ‘Wow, that’s amazing, there’s a show that actually believes that women can be in control and can be powerful.’ I think that’s the biggest takeaway: it shouldn’t be a surprise, or you shouldn’t even think about it in those terms. 

The title of your talk today is “Creators Fighting Climate Change.” How does the Game of Thrones platform help your efforts in terms of visibility?

It’s funny. I was doing this interview this morning and the last question was: so how do you feel about celebrities and actors who get up on stage and [speak about issues]...what do you say to people who say you should just shut up and stick to what you do best? The funny thing is sometimes I get the same feeling. But the truth is you’re trying to raise awareness of what the smart people do. Because of Game of Thrones, there’s a lot of attention and I can use that to get the spotlight on some causes that are very, very important.

What have been your most memorable moments while working on behalf of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP)?

My wife is from Greenland and we did a project with UNDP where we partnered with Google Maps and did a video focusing on climate change. It was just a great experience to see parts of Greenland that I’ve never seen. I’ve been coming here for almost 20 years. And, of course, to see the power of the visuals, when you see that the glacier’s receding over just ten years, it’s shocking.

The United Nations’ Global Goals for 2030 are achievable. You look back 20 years and a lot of those areas have improved immensely. Certain areas have not—especially climate change. In my opinion, and the opinion of the people in UNDP, that is the one thing that we really have to focus on because if we fail there, all bets are off.

Speaking of climate change, what's your take on the theory that the White Walkers on Game of Thrones are a metaphor for climate change?

You’d have to ask George R.R. Martin. It’s very easy to look at it that way. I don’t think it was necessarily intended like that, but the parallels are you have a world where you’re trying to get all of the powerful houses, all of the countries, to get together to fight this enormous enemy and the most powerful house says ‘Yes I’m going to do this’ and then suddenly decides not to. You can easily draw parallels. But the truth is that reality is always much more extreme than fiction. We couldn’t make up what’s happening now. Our species, we’ve been so successful. We’re almost 7 and a half billion. By 2030 we’ll be 8 and a half billion people. It’s like, wow, we did really well. The irony is we’re about to destroy all of this. We think we’re invincible. If we go above 2.5 degrees, it’s going to end in tears.

What do you hope the main takeaway will be from today? 

There are so many different people from various organizations and different backgrounds, and it shows the diversity in the movement, that there are a lot of people who want to do good—to make this world a better place for all of us. I just saw the panel on the White Helmets [unarmed volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defense]. You’re just in awe when you see these guys who literally risk their lives every day to help others. In the Western world, we’ve been so successful and we’re so wealthy, I do believe we have an obligation to do more than we have done. We can’t afford not to. We’ve been the biggest polluters, we’ve lived to the fullest, and now we should pick up the tab.

What actionable things can people do right now to make a difference?

If you don’t know about the 17 Global Goals, go to globalgoals.com or undp.org and read about it. Learn about what’s being done, and find ways to do your bit. If we all do just a little bit, it’s going to have a massive effect. If you live in a democracy, be very aware—as recent elections both here and in Europe have shown—that every vote counts and has a huge impact.

Denmark is ranked as the happiest country in the world. What can the rest of the world learn from the Danes?

It’s funny—when you live in a place there are always so many things you find can be done better. [But] there’s a very short distance to the people in power, so you feel involved with the country, and I think there’s a huge sense of equality in Denmark. The Scandinavian welfare model is very strong and it works very well. You take care of the people in need and you try to give everyone equal opportunities —the basics, like education and health care.

What music is currently inspiring you?

Ask my 16-year-old daughter, she keeps updating my playlists. She’s sitting right outside the door. I keep telling her, you have to keep me updated. I’ve got a playlist right here; it’s called “Musical Education for Dad.” Obviously, Frank Ocean is on there. Honne, Allen Stone… I don’t even know all of these names. I tell her, you have to check out the ones from the ’80s and ’90s that I listened to. The ’80s were never cool, but they’re cool now.