A Conversation with H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Chairman of the Arctic Circle; President of Iceland (1996-2016)

A Conversation with H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, Chairman of the Arctic Circle; President of Iceland (1996-2016)

In October 2021, I attended the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland as a guest of the University of the Arctic. A consortium of 200+ universities and research organisations spanning the globe who are committed to developing evidence based solutions to the challenges faced by people and the environment of the Arctic, and who are at the bleeding edge of discovery around topics ranging from energy to economics.

The Arctic Circle is a remote, beautiful, and critical part of our planet. Covering one sixth of the Earth’s surface, and over twenty-four time zones, this region is home to more than four million people, and is critically important to keeping our world’s climate, weather, and oceans in balance. Like most everywhere in the world, the Arctic is being shaped by the forces of globalisation and is seen as a frontier of new economic opportunity, but perhaps more than anywhere on Earth, the Arctic is at the front-line of climate change.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson served as President of Iceland for twenty years, 1996-2016; elected five times in nationwide elections. Previously, he was Minister of Finance, Member of Parliament, Member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the first Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland. He now serves as Chairman of the Arctic Circle, the largest network of international dialogue and cooperation on the future of the Arctic and our Planet. It is an open democratic platform with participation from governments, organizations, corporations, universities, think tanks, environmental associations, indigenous communities, concerned citizens, and others. It is non-profit and nonpartisan. At the heart of the organisation is The Arctic Circle Assembly; the largest annual international gathering on the Arctic and a preeminent global platform for discussions on climate change, clean energy transformation, sustainability of ocean resources as well as geopolitical changes.

In this interview, I speak to H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (Chairman of the Arctic Circle; President of Iceland, 1996-2016) on the crucial role of the Arctic Circle in the future of our planet, why we need to act now on climate change, and the huge economic, social, and cultural opportunities presented by the region if we engage in dialogue and cooperation.

Q: Why has there been such a lack of awareness around Arctic issues for so long?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: For centuries, even millennia, the Arctic was completely unknown to the educated western world and to many other parts of the world. There were neither technologies nor means to reach these extremely remote areas. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the so-called Arctic Explorers became famous in Europe and America because they were the first people from the western world to go into the frozen wilderness. Nobody knew if they were alive or dead until they came back 3-4 years later.

Then, during the Cold War, the military build-up between the Soviet Union, United States and NATO closed the Arctic for almost half a century. It consisted effectively of no-go territories with almost every form of military technology deployed. It was only with the end of the Cold War that this big part of the planet opened-up for dialogue, cooperation, scientific research, and exploration.

The term Arctic itself is misleading. It sounds like a region. It is in fact a big part of the planet of continental size. If you add all the Arctic areas up – Alaska, Canada, Greenland, the Nordics, and Russia – it’s almost the size of Africa. Imagine if it was only 30 years ago when we discovered Africa!

This opening-up of the Arctic in the last 20-30 years also happened while climate change was becoming a crucial issue. The front-line of climate change is the Arctic. Melting sea ice is the major cause of extreme weather all over the world, and enormous destruction follows these weather patterns. The Greenland ice sheet is the second largest ice sheet on our planet. If only one-quarter melted, it would lead to a 2-metre rise in sea-levels all over the world and would threaten thousands of cities and towns on every continent. So, when the Arctic finally opened, it was during decades when the future of the global climate became crucial.

Q: What are the most common misunderstandings about the Arctic?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: The most common misunderstanding is that the Arctic is just a frozen wilderness with a lot of ice and glaciers and a few polar bears roaming. On the contrary the Arctic is a very diverse part of our planet with multiple resources and economic opportunities, the home for over four million people of different nationalities and diverse ethnic origin. No simple image fits the Arctic. It is among the most complex parts of our planet, crucial for the survival of our climate and very rich in resources of great importance for 21st century economic progress.

Q: Why did you convene the Arctic Circle? 

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: I had been engaged in the climate discussion for some time earlier in my career, and during my 20 years as President of Iceland. When speaking about climate in America, Asia, and other parts of the world, I discovered that the terminology was unfortunately very technical and complicated. If you talk about the ice and glaciers however, everybody understands.

The ice is neither left nor right, it is neither Republican nor Democrat, it is simply melting. The consequences of the sea ice melting are enormous and will be felt everywhere from Texas to China.

During the first term of my Presidency from 1996-2000 we were coming into the new century and were thinking about what the major challenges would be. I concluded that the Arctic was of monumental importance – not just because of climate change and the melting of the glaciers, but also because of the new shipping routes, airline routes, mineral resources, rare metals, ocean resources and fish stocks. It was highly likely that soon in the new century, our Arctic neighbourhood would become crowded with players, not only from Europe but from Asia and other parts of the world. That turned out to be the case. We therefore needed an annual platform like Davos which was big enough, multi-dimensional and multilateral enough to bring together leaders, presidents, prime ministers, corporate leaders, scientists, and environmentalist. That is why I created the Arctic Circle.

In relatively few years, we have succeeded in making it the most important international annual platform on the Arctic and other relevant global issues such as climate, clean energy, the ocean, and others. Our Assembly is attended by more than 2,000 people from 70 countries. In addition, we host forums in Asia, Europe, America.

While creating a unique platform for dialogue and cooperation on the climate, clean energy, and the oceans, I also wanted to create a new model of global cooperation for the 21st century.   

The old diplomatic model where only representatives of states have a formal role cannot work in today’s world. We need open, democratic platforms that allow everyone to participate – it could be a young activist or a business leader, it could be a scientist or an indigenous leader. We need even playing fields where everyone has the same right to participate.

We are also seeing that entrepreneurs and business leaders are realising that there is a huge part of the planet opening for opportunities. The Arctic Circle Assembly is a 3-day crash course in this new frontier!

Q:  What are the human issues that impact the Arctic Circle?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: Part of the reason we created the Arctic Circle was to give indigenous communities the same right to participate in dialogue as national governments. That is truly unique. Giving indigenous organisations and their governments this platform has created extraordinary outcomes – for example, the presence of Greenland at our last Assembly.

We must remember that about one-quarter of the planet is under the control of the indigenous communities of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Arctic. Quite frankly, we will never be able to deal with the challenges of the 21st century unless we engage and empower indigenous communities around the world.

Bringing together indigenous communities in dialogue also creates fascinating cooperation – for example, we have seen cooperation between communities in the Arctic and the Pacific Island – which are probably about as far away from the Arctic as you can be on our planet! Communities from the Pacific Island states saw the advancement of indigenous people in the Arctic, how we have dealt with ocean resources, fishing and climate and want to learn from our experiences.

Q:  How should donors and development organisations better understand the Arctic?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: The donor communities have, to some extent, been blinded by the prominence of nation states. The world is still organised in terms of governments and countries. Just look at the covid-maps we have seen this past year and a half. They always show countries, and colour code them based on covid infections. Once you start looking closely, you see that almost every country in the world is divided into different communities. For continents like Asia and Latin America, colonial powers-imposed structures on entities which had been there for hundreds of years. It was the same in the Arctic. We are now increasingly realising, that without the involvement of indigenous communities on every continent, we are not going to be able to solve the most crucial problems our planet faces. In this regard, the Arctic is interesting. Despite all the challenges we have faced, we have seen fascinating empowerment of Arctic communities over the last half-century. Don’t forget, just 70 years ago, Alaska was governed from Washington. It took many decades for Alaska to become a State of the Union and achieve self-governance. Look at the provinces in Canada where, over the last decades, despite difficult periods in Canadian history dealing with the first nation of indigenous communities, those communities are getting increasingly empowered. Greenland has also gone from being a Danish colony in all practical respects to becoming a self-governing entity within the Kingdom of Denmark. The same is true of Iceland and the Faroe Islands. We became a republic in 1944, and the Faroe Islands gained a more independent status within the Kingdom of Denmark.

This has been noticed in other parts of the world. Some years ago, I made a visit to Bangladesh, hosted by the Minister of the Environment. We were sailing on a boat to observe how sea level rise, caused by the melting Greenland ice sheet, could threaten the future of Bangladesh. He started discussing in intricate detail the rights of the indigenous populations of the Arctic – and as it turns out – he’d studied that model for his people in Bangladesh. In addition to being a Minister of the Environment, he was also King of a tribe. A tribe which had about 400,000 people. He had been saying to his fellow Ministers in the Government of Bangladesh that he wanted the same rights for his tribe as the Arctic indigenous communities have gained for themselves. The same is being seen in the Pacific Island states who are looking at Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands as models for how small communities can operate independently and how they can utilise ocean resources, not just in a responsible way of preserving the fish stock, but by creating an extraordinary prosperity for themselves.

Q: What is the economic & geopolitical significance of the Arctic?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: Due to the melting of the sea ice new sea routes are opening-up through the north, linking Asia to Europe and America. These new routes are considerably shorter than the old traditional ones through the Suez Canal. Furthermore, airlines are increasingly due to the shape of the planet using the shorter route by flying across the Arctic, making for example Finland and Iceland important international hubs for airlines. The rich natural resources of the Arctic – oil, gas, clean energy, minerals, rare earth metals, fish stocks – are enhancing greatly the economic importance of the Arctic. A new wave of tourists from Asia, America and Europe are making the wilderness, natural beauty, and the communities of the Arctic increasingly attractive. On the geopolitical scene the Arctic has also become a playing field where not only the United States, Russia, and China, but also other leading countries of Asia and all the major powers of Europe are enhancing their position.

Q: What is at stake globally?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: The greatest threat to the Arctic over the next 30-40 years comes from the big cities of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The pollution emitted from fossil fuels in those regions is a huge threat to the ice sheets, far greater in magnitude than the environmental impact of mining and mineral extraction in the Arctic. In turn, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet threatens every coastal city in China, Japan, Korea, Africa, America and elsewhere in the world. The melting of the Arctic Sea ice is also the major cause of the extreme weather patterns everywhere in the world.

By increasing CO2 emissions, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is increased. That in turn causes rising sea levels around the world, and extreme weather patterns. If the pollution continues, the process continues even more. We must break this vicious circle.

In 30 years, three-quarters of the world will live in Asia and Africa and two-thirds of humanity will live in big cities. How we heat and cool those big cities will be a determining factor in the future of the climate, and the future of the Arctic.

Mining and mineral extraction must be done carefully. Greenland has declared a policy of no uranium, no oil extraction, and no gas. Only clean energy. It’s an astounding policy for the new Government of Greenland. The Arctic is so huge that the environmental impact of mining, compared to industrial pollution from other parts of the world, will be very small. The Russian Arctic alone covers 7 time zones, that’s more than twice the United States. Greenland is the largest island in the world. Even if there were 3, 4 or 5 mining operations in Greenland for example- where there is no vegetation, grass, fields and very few people, the environmental impact will not be so great. 

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[H.E. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson]: I don’t think much about my legacy, I am more concerned with doing things, having an impact, and helping the world change course.

History teaches us that no leader can determine his or her legacy. It will be decided by people long after we are dead. I think it’s futile to think of a legacy. The main thing is to use the time we are given on this planet in a way that makes sure our children, and future generations, will enjoy the same opportunities as we have.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.