Q&A: 'We will lose the planet' if Arctic cooperation fails, Iceland's former president says

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former president of Iceland. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

SEATTLE — All eyes should be on the Arctic, according to Iceland’s former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson.

“If we lose the Arctic, the future of the planet will be disastrous in terms of extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels. It could also become an area of conflict instead of cooperation,” said Grímsson, who served 20 years in office from 1996 to 2016.

The former head of state has dedicated his post-presidency to the Arctic Circle Assembly, the largest international gathering on the far north, which will meet for the seventh time in Reykjavik, Iceland this week to discuss everything from sustainable housing for extreme cold to fostering livelihoods for Inuit youth.

“There is also the humble, to some extent, scary realization that if as humankind we fail in the Arctic, we will lose the planet. Those are the geophysical, geopolitical consequences of how the Arctic plays a great role.”

— Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, former president of Iceland

Instead of giving the floor only to diplomats representing national governments, the Arctic Circle Assembly flings the doors of Reykjavik’s iconic Harpa concert hall wide open to the largest possible range of Arctic stakeholders. That means U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry will be heard alongside Inuk indigenous rights activist Ashley Komangaapik Rose Cummings from Nunavut, Canada. Meanwhile, researchers, policymakers, and NGOs from mid-latitude countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Kenya, India, and China will make the trek north to weigh in on how the future of the Arctic influences the rest of the world.

Devex sat down with Grímsson this past April at the Arctic Encounter Symposium in Seattle to understand why he sees the Arctic Circle Assembly as a global model for democratic dialogue.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How does the Arctic Circle differ from traditional political forums?

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The Arctic Circle is a new model on cooperation in the 21st century because any participant,

whether it's an activist or a young student, has the same right as a president, prime minister, or CEO of a major corporation. In addition, regional entities throughout the Arctic have the same right to present themselves as nation states. Alaska, Québec, and Greenland can enter like China, Korea, and Japan without permission from their capitals.

The old 19th and 20th-century model was that only national governments were at any international table: Washington, Ottawa, Copenhagen, Moscow. We defined and structured the Arctic Circle in such a way that anyone who has something to contribute can participate. Most of the sessions are organized by different entities in their own names and with full authority over the agenda and the speakers.

What keeps the national government major players at the table when you have also given status to the young activist or the separatist-leaning region?

It has required both political and diplomatic skill. In the beginning, people looked at my track record and realized to some extent I could be trusted. It also helped that the assembly was in Iceland, which is a small country that doesn't threaten anybody, so there was no suspicion of ulterior motives. It would have been different if this would have taken place, let's say, in Washington or Moscow.

The assembly’s location works in the same way that the key economic players of the world come every year to a small village in Switzerland. You can have your views about the World Economic Forum, but the fact of the matter is that a small village in Switzerland is perhaps a better place to meet than the financial district of London, Washington, or Singapore.

In addition to that, it was the realization by all these major players that everybody is entering unknown territory in the Arctic except the indigenous people, who have lived there for thousands of years. I know it's strange to say, but there was a certain humbleness on the part of the major countries. They realized that it was also in their best interest to come to the table in this new, open way, that they might also learn something because nobody has the solution, even the U.S. and Russia don't have the solution.

There is also the humble, to some extent, scary realization that if as humankind we fail in the Arctic, we will lose the planet. Those are the geophysical, geopolitical consequences of how the Arctic plays a great role.

“The future of the Arctic will be determined by the level of pollution in Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, and Korean cities.”

Why are the planetary stakes so high in the future of the Arctic?

We as humankind have in fact the challenge for the first time in our history, how do we structure cooperation on such a big part of the planet, where only 30 years ago there was no cooperative framework? And now where not only Russia and the United States are dominant players, but also all the other major economies of the world? That's not an easy task.

To create an annual platform where all these players turn up and where the young activist has the same right to speak as a president of a country is also a wake-up call that we are now in an era of new, concerted politics that gives you more hope for the world than the same old model, which we, unfortunately, see still in operation with regard to many of the challenges that the world is dealing with.

What are the most concrete achievements of the Arctic Circle thus far?

Perhaps the most important thing is that in the last five years the leading economies of Asia and Europe have all entered the Arctic. They were not there before. The most important success of the Arctic Circle Assembly is to make every country that wants to engage in the Arctic accountable in a democratic, open, transparent dialogue, but also to create a culture of cooperation.

How successful has that culture of cooperation been?

While you have Ukraine, Syria, and conflicts on the global scale between the U.S. and China and the U.S. and Russia, the Arctic theater has witnessed extensive and growing cooperation. You can see that every year by coming to the Assembly in Iceland, and you see this vibrant three days of dialogue with 140 sessions with 700 speakers from all over the world.

It's a manifestation of democratic political engagement on this very important part of the planet. Let's not forget that if you add the Arctic up it's almost the size of Africa, and it is the key territory for the future of the planet with respect to climate change, natural resources, transportation, and communications.

Why should Arctic residents welcome the increased attention and involvement of mid-latitude countries?

Because we are allowing the ice and the conditions in the Arctic to be transformed by the economic model in the rest of the world. One of the reasons why we want China as a part of the Arctic dialogue is that the coal-based energy economy of China is among the greatest threats to the future of the Arctic. The future of the Arctic will be determined by the level of pollution in Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, and Korean cities.

About the author

  • Greg

    Gregory Scruggs

    Gregory Scruggs is a journalist based in Seattle. He has a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree from Columbia University. A specialist in Latin America and the Caribbean, he was a Fulbright scholar in Brazil. His coverage of the Habitat III summit and global urbanization won a 2017 United Nations Correspondent Association award. He coordinates the Seattle chapter of the Solutions Journalism Network.