Iceland’s President Explains Why EVERYONE (Especially China) Is Watching The Arctic

China Iceland
Ólafur and Wen in 2005.

[credit provider=”AP”]

China’s premier Wen Jiabao is in Iceland right now, at the beginning of a short tour of Europe, Russia Today reports.So why would Wen, at a time of great political scandal we should note, be leaving his country of 1.4 billion to hang out in a country of 300,000?

Officially, it’s a visit to discuss how to harness geothermal power — and that does make sense, given that Iceland, with its incredible geothermal resources, is probably the world leader in that sphere.

On the other hand, the visit seems destined to be a part of China’s campaign to gain influence in the Arctic, aka. “the great Arctic game”. You might have also noticed China cozying up to Greenland, and rumours were flying about the possibility of an Chinese tycoon buying a huge amount of land in Iceland for nefarious reasons.

China’s hope, many believe, is to gain a permanent observer seat at the Arctic Council.

So what’s the big fuss about the Arctic? Well, we sat down with Icelandic President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson last month, and asked him about it. Here’s what he said:

I started to speak out about the Arctic and being involved in the Arctic very early in my presidency. So I have been involved in this evolution for more than a decade, longer than anybody else in this position, I think. At that time, it was still the prevailing view, even among many of the Arctic countries, that this was a peripheral issue. However, in the last five or six years, it has really moved centre stage. And I think there are three fundamental reasons for this. One is people have become more aware of the extraordinary resources: not just oil and gas, but also minerals on a big scale. And also clean energy: lots of people talk about the Arctic in terms of oil and gas. It may come as a surprise to many that the Arctic is already the leading clean energy region in the world, giving, for example, the importance of clean energy in Iceland, Norway and Greenland. And the potential of hydrothermal, geothermal, wind and wave power all over the Arctic.

But in general, this extraordinary richness of resources is one of the reasons everyone cares. The second is that unfortunately, with climate change the ice will melt and this will open up new new sea routes which could, in 20 or 30 years, transform global trade like the Suez Canal in its time.

And this is one of the reasons China is so interested, in my opinion, in a legitimate way, because when China becomes the leading trading country in the world, which it will be in a few decades, it goes without saying that the most efficient trading routes are going to be used by the leading trading country in the world. And these new trade routes will shorten the trading routes between China and America and Europe by almost 40 per cent. But it will not be easy. It will require lot of regulations, harbor facilities, depots, hubs, you name it. If these plans are going to be effective, it needs a lot of infrastructure.

The third reason is that climate change is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else in the world. The melting of the Tundra in Russia, and elsewhere in the Arctic, opens up the possibility of what some people call the methane bomb exploding, which will be much more dangerous than the CO2 effect. So the breaking point in fundamental disastrous climate transformation of the entire globe will happen in the Arctic. So the need for scientific cooperation for systematic observation of what’s happening to the ice, the frozen tundra, both the sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet, and the tundra in Russia as well, is one of the most critical factors in the future of mankind. I know it sounds big, but that’s a scientific reality. At the beginning of this week, I was at the conference in Boston hosted by the Fletcher school on the future of the Arctic, and I also had meetings at MIT and Harvard on this.

In addition to what I have now described, there seems to be an indication that the melting of the ice in the Arctic is leading to new gaps in the ozone layer over America and parts of Europe. We thought we dealt with that problem with the international Montreal agreement some decades ago. If this is happening, it means that the damage to the ozone could in fact have a disastrous effect on the health and well being of the people in the advanced world, long before the ocean sea routes get really effective.

So for all of these reasons, and each of them is big enough, but when you put them all together, the Arctic has become one of the most crucial regions for the future of the world, both in terms of the economy, trade, and climate and health.

Fortunately, during this time when there was very little attention to the Arctic, the eight Arctic countries were able peacefully, almost off the radar, to develop co-operation within the Arctic Council, and to consolidate the peaceful and constructive dialogue among Russia, the United States, Canada, and the five Nordic countries.

So now when we approach this situation, we have already have a well-established, in my opinion, rather profound and strong co-operation within the Arctic Council, which, in my opinion, almost eliminates this threat which some people have been talking about, this leading to confrontation and military conflict, high political tension in the Arctic. People may say I’m naive, but I believe from my experience that what has already been achieved within the Arctic Council and the self-interest of the eight Arctic countries will lead us to continue in this harmonious, constructive cooperation. The problem, however, is the strong demands from other countries like China, South Korea, the European Union, and many others from other parts of the world that they now want a seat at the Arctic Council table. And that question has not been resolved so far.

Read the full transcript of the interview here >