Risan Media’s Transcribed Interview the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

Risan Media interview with the Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland

On May 16th, 2014, Todd Anders Johnson from Risan Media was able to interview Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the President of Iceland, to discuss climate change and regional cooperation within the Arctic and the Himalaya.

Risan Media:

Could you please introduce yourself and where we are right now?

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:

Well, my name is Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, and we are here at Bessastadir, which is the presidential residence.

Risan Media:

You were born in Iceland, where did you grow up?

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:

Like most Icelanders, I was born in Iceland and I grew up in the western fjords and then I moved with my parents when I was 10 but continued in the summers to be on the western fjords. So I consider my roots to be that part of Iceland.

Risan Media:

With warming in the North Atlantic ocean, are there changes that you are noticing in Iceland?

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:

I often say that if you come from Iceland, you don’t have to go to international conferences to be aware of climate change. We have the largest glaciers in Europe and they are receding very fast. We have studied them for a long time and our neighboring country, Greenland, is also witnessing in many different ways, the impact of climate change with the melting of the ice sheet with new rivers and lakes appearing. But the most recent evidence to us is then related to the migrating species of fish, especially the mackerel and that is a type of fish, which we, in Iceland, didn’t really know very much about. When I was growing up in Iceland, nobody had heard of that fish unless you studied some specialized books. But in recent years the ocean in Iceland has suddenly become full of mackerel and we have had serious difficult disputes between Norway, Iceland, Greenland and the European Union about how much to fish and so on and where because traditionally, mackerel was fished by those who are more south in the North Atlantic, but now climate change and the different level of temperatures in the North Atlantic ocean have moved the mackerel close to us, close to Greenland, and it is a clear example of how the ocean resources are changing due to the warming of the oceans. So now we have evidence in Iceland, not only on land with respect to the receding glaciers, or in our neighboring country, Greenland, but we also have it in the ocean and perhaps also diplomatically in the disputes that we have with our neighbors in Europe.

Risan Media:

I am very excited to hear this discussion of the Third Pole and the relationship of the Arctic with the Himalaya.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:

I have been involved in Arctic cooperation throughout my presidency. As you are probably aware, for centuries the Arctic was almost completely unknown to educated people in the Western world. Only the indigenous people that had lived for thousands of years in Alaska, northern parts of Canada, Greenland into Russia, were aware of the Arctic. It’s kind of strange to think about it that the great famous discoverers who went to the North Pole and into the Arctic were doing that at a time when my father was a boy here in Iceland, it’s so recent that we are aware of it. And then, unfortunately, during the Cold War, due to the military confrontation, the Arctic became a “no go” zone. So we only have the last 15 or 20 years where the Arctic has kind of opened up for research, for communication, for discussions and cooperation and I have sometimes said it’s almost like a new planet in terms of global cooperation and even cooperation among us in the Arctic countries. So when I became president and tried to look ahead to what would be important issues for Iceland in the early part of the 21st century, it was clear to me that the evolution of the Arctic, partly due to climate change, but also on it’s own, would change Iceland’s position, the opportunities, the challenges, our foreign policy, in a big way and we should start to prepare for that. But I have to tell you that going back to those discussions in the late 1990’s and the first years of this century, we somehow expected that things like the opening up of the Northern sea routes or access to natural resources due to the melting of the ice would perhaps happen by the middle of the 21st century. So the aggressive pace of climate change has moved these transformations much closer in time than anybody expected 10 or 15 years ago.

At the same time, I have, both before I was president and during my presidency, worked closely with India and also China and came into contact with leading people from the Himalayan region. And I realized, and it was a rather startling discovery, that although cooperation was young and limited in the Arctic, it was almost nonexistent in the Himalayas and there was extraordinary lack of expertise. India has, for example, very few glaciologists but India has over ten thousand glaciers on the Indian side of the Himalayas. So I have tried, in recent years, to link together the experience from the Arctic cooperation, whether it is scientific or political or economic, to bring in the Himalayan countries; China, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan; closer in studying and doing research and trying to formulate reactions with respect to the aggressive melting of the Himalayan glaciers. And I hosted, here in Iceland, a meeting, it’s called the Third Pole environmental program because Chinese scientists used this very interesting concept of the Third Pole about the Himalayas, and then I helped organize a meeting in India also dealing with the Himalayas. And when we hosted the First Assembly of the Arctic Circle, here in Iceland last October, the biggest international gathering on the Arctic ever to take place, we also had special sessions on the Arctic lessons for the Himalayas. And later this year we will have our meeting in Bhutan bringing people together from both the Himalayan countries and also from the Arctic countries and to me this is a very important combination because different from Antarctica, the Arctic and the Himalayas are those parts of planet Earth where people and ice co-exist and have co-existed for thousands of years and the most dramatic effect of climate change will take place first. So the impact of the warming of planet will be felt more dramatically in the Arctic and in the Himalayas and in addition, you have almost all the leading economic powers of the world either closely related or being part of the Himalayan regions or being a part of the Arctic region. And by talking about the Arctic and the Himalayas together, you are therefore able to link the leading economic powers, whether they are United States, Russia, France, Germany, Britain, who are observer states in the Arctic Council, Japan, India, China and the others, in a very important debate about people and ice. And somehow I think politically, it is more effective to concentrate the discussion on people and ice rather than to talk about climate change which, to some people is a rather weak, almost a kind of propaganda concept. But the ice is concrete and how people who live close to it are observing it and reacting to it is also very concrete, so there is not very much space for doubt if you are in the Himalayas or if you are in the Arctic. And this is the first time in history that we are bringing together these efforts in the Arctic on the one hand and the Himalaya on the other.

Risan Media:

Dr. Sebastian Mernild is a Danish glaciologist, climatologist and climate polar senior research scientist at the Center for Scientific Studies in Santiago, Chile. He has invited Risan Media to join him in the High Andes to document his research there and to show the film at universities and schools throughout Chile and elsewhere. The project will focus on climate change impacts on Andean glaciers and future water resource problems for regional communities with regard to agriculture, etc. The issue is relative in the Karakoram region of the Himalaya relating to glacier outburst floods.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:

You see the most important challenge is to bring the countries in the Himalayan regions together on this because there you have China and India, you have Pakistan, you have three nuclear weapons states, you have a history of wars in this part of the world if you look at the last 50, 60, 70 years, but you also have a dramatic potential for conflict over water resources, over the river flows, because up to 2 billion people in this part of the world depend, in one way or another, on the rivers that are fed by the water from and the melting of the ice from the Himalayas. So, whereas it is important for scientists in Denmark or United States or somewhere else to study this, and it is important, the key task is to enhance the knowledge and the cooperation among the nations in the Himalayas themselves. There is no glaciology institute in India the glaciology studies in China are relatively young. Yao Tandong, who heads the glaciology institute that deals with the Himalayas, is a relatively young scientist compared to some of the elders in European or American glaciology. But time is short, the next 30 or 40 years we will see dramatic changes and because in the Arctic you have a proven track record, that despite the conflicts and the confrontation that came with the Cold War, it has been possible for the United States, Russia, Canada and us in the Nordic countries to come together in the Arctic to create a form of cooperation and then invite China, Japan, India, France, Britain, Germany and others to come in and participate as permanent observer states. So by bringing the model that we have developed in the last 10 or 15 years from the Arctic to the Himalayas, we can demonstrate to them that not only is such cooperation necessary, but it’s also possible and as I have said to the leaders of China and India, it’s kind of paradoxical that both of them want to be at the table regarding the ice in my part of the world, the Arctic table, but it’s very difficult to get them to the ice table in their own neighborhood in the Himalayas.

Risan Media:

Your conference in October, this will be a focus?

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson:

Yes, indeed, I mean, the reason why together, with some of my other Arctic partners, I established the Arctic Circle and it’s first assembly that came together last year, the second assembly will be at the end of October, beginning of November this year, was that the fast pace of change in the Arctic, which I described before, had made it necessary to enhance the level of dialog and broaden the involvement of the different constituencies, whether they are scientists or local leaders or indigenous people or entrepreneurs or governmental leaders. Because, until we established the Arctic Circle, the meetings and the conferences on the Arctic tended to be relatively small, they tended to be specialized and there was a need to bring, at least once a year, all these different constituencies together in a very open and democratic way where everybody had the same right to speak and be heard. And the key aspect of the Arctic Circle different from, I think, any other international gathering of this kind, is that in addition to the plenary discussions that we organize, any organization or government or university or business can come and organize sessions and meetings under the Arctic Circle umbrella in their own name according to their own agenda and their own decision-making power. So it’s like creating a big Arctic village or square where people can come on their own terms with their own agenda and their own contribution. And it was extraordinarily successful in the first assembly it surprised even the most optimistic of us. You had over 1200 people from 40 countries, you had fascinating contributions from South Korea, Singapore, China, India and you also had, for the three days, this very important discussion on the Arctic lessons for the Himalayas. So we are going to continue in this way now, for the coming years, to have every year in Iceland in October, this international gathering which we call the Arctic Circle. But in between the assemblies we will have separate meetings in other countries, we will have some in the United States next year because the US takes on the chairmanship in the Arctic Council. That will be a very important test, if I may say so, for the US because it’s the first time after the Arctic Council became a treaty-making body that the United States is in the chair and the nature of the Arctic Council is such that if you are the chairing nation you are expected to provide a vision, to provide a policy framework and so on. And then we are having a meeting also this year in Greenland and we might have a meeting next year in Singapore to talk about the Asian view and the Asian contribution to the Arctic, and at the meeting of the Arctic Circle assembly in Reykjavik in the end of October, which now decided that a delegation from Japan will come and explain why Japan is interested in the Arctic from a scientific, political and business point of view. Similarly, France will do the same, so will Italy and Korea might come and explain the new Korean master plan for the Arctic.

So, in addition to what we are doing in the Arctic countries, I think it’s very important to bring forward and highlight that now this part of planet Earth which was unknown, isolated, off the radar screen until a few decades ago, has now become this new economic and political playing field and it’s an important demonstration of the relationship between ice and nations and communities everywhere in the world. Many people ask me aren’t you afraid of China’s involvement in the Arctic and my answer is China has two very strong legitimate reasons to be interested in the Arctic. One is that the research of the China Power Institute, in the last five or six years, has demonstrated that the aggressive melting of the Arctic sea ice has a strong impact on weather patterns in China and we have had now, twice in the last four years, extreme weather taking place in China in January and February with enormous destruction to power grids, railway lines, agricultural production and so on. So what happens in my ice-covered neighborhood has big consequences for China not decades from now, but a few months from now, so if you want to prepare your country for disastrous extreme weather events in China, you look at the Arctic sea ice. That’s a very legitimate reason to want to do research on the Arctic sea ice, same as storm Sandy in the United States. And I think it’s an interesting angle with respect to climate change, to make people aware why the US and China should be so concerned about the melting of the Arctic sea ice. The other reason why China has a legitimate interest in the Arctic is also related to the melting of the Arctic sea ice because with the opening up of the new sea routes, the Northern sea routes, the distance between China and Europe and the United States will be much shorter. It will save fuel and oil and costs to transport cargo through the Northern sea route during those months of the year that the sea route will be open, so when China is becoming the leading trading country in the 21st century, like France and Britain were interested in the Suez Canal a hundred years ago, it’s only natural China should be interested in the Northern sea route, but so is South Korea and Singapore. And if people are a bit perplexed why China is so interested in the Arctic, they should look at why South Korea and Singapore are so interested in the Arctic. It’s a new global perspective, which unfortunately, most people in the US have not grasped yet.

 

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