On Nov. 25, the people of Greenland voted in favor of fuller autonomy from Denmark, which has administered the world’s biggest island almost continuously since the 18th century. Big news for Greenland, though the rest of the world is more interested in the melting of Greenland’s massive ice cap, which continues to shrink under the warmth of record Arctic temperatures. Among those wrestling with the impact of climate change on Greenland and the world is Inuuteq Holm Olsen, deputy foreign minister of Greenland’s Home Rule Government. On his way back to Greenland from a climate conference at Dartmouth College, Olsen sat down for breakfast with Plenty in New York.


PLENTY: When you go to international events such as the Dartmouth conference, or at the United Nations, what are the most common questions people have about Greenland?
Inuuteq Holm Olsen: The big issue is the melting of the ice cap, which of course has global consequences, so there’s a lot of curiosity about that — how fast it’s melting, where it’s melting, what are the predictions, what are the factors. A new issue that is emerging is so-called “short-lived” climate change, which is caused by the soot from burning coal around the world. It’s transported up to the Arctic and deposited in the snow, making it darker, which accelerates the melting. Another common question concerns the permafrost, which holds a lot of methane, and which as it is released contributes to warming and more melting. Along with ice, Greenland is mostly covered in permafrost.

What are some of the changes in Greenland’s climate that you’ve noticed personally over the course of your life, and how do these changes affect the daily life of Greenlanders?

We’ve seen the effects especially up in Arctic Northern Greenland, because that’s where it is usually the coldest in the winter months. When the sea ice grows, you can use that for many things, like transportation. But the sea ice hasn’t been there for the last seven to eight years. You don’t see the sea ice freezing anymore.

How are people getting around that region?

It’s a challenge. One effect is that shipping is possible, but only to a certain extent. It’s still cold, it’s still winter, and the sea ice doesn’t really freeze solidly. It’s crunchy, kind of like mashed potatoes, and it becomes un-navigable and very unstable. The dog sledders now have to use the land instead of the sea ice. For the hunters that live off traditional hunting, that’s a real threat. It’s like your boss taking away your paycheck for whole months without prior notice.

Which species populations are starting to thin to the point that hunters aren’t able to find them?

There are many. The hunters have to go out further for game. But more frequent storms make it dangerous to go out. It’s not just people going farther afield for their hunts. Now we’re seeing polar bears going into the settlements. Normally they live where people don’t, in remoter regions, but lately they’ve come all the way south, and are now being seen in and around some towns for the first time.

Can you talk about the possible future oil and mineral wealth of Greenland, which may become accessible as a result of warming?
We’re going to find out how much is there in the next couple of years when we begin to explore. Mining is another sector for potential growth. Greenland is very rich in rare minerals, and in gold, diamonds, iron ore, and other common minerals. There is a mine in northern Greenland that has been closed for 30 years that a company was looking to open up again. They found some new existing minerals within the mine that were under the ice but are now accessible because of climate change. We’re also looking at water as a commodity.

Selling freshwater to the world?

Yes. It’s something that will always be in demand. You’re already beginning to see droughts and issues with water.

How do you harness a melting ice cap?

Yes, the challenge is how do you get the melting water. There’s a new company starting up in the Disko Bay area that’s exploring this and is [hopefully] going to start exporting water.

Does Greenland have the world’s deepest fresh water reserves?

Probably. After Antarctica, Greenland has the largest ice cap, accounting for about 10% of the world’s freshwater.

Do you think that there’s a general public awareness among Greenlanders that they’re living on the center stage of the global climate drama?

There’s a growing awareness, but people look at it as well from an inside/outside perspective. You have all this pollution from the rest of the world that is transported up to the Arctic that has an impact on our daily lives. Greenlanders are looking at it from a practical daily perspective. Of course, they are aware that if the cap melts, it will have an impact on low-lying countries, but I think people in Greenland are very practical in nature. They look at things from the perspective of their daily lives. For us, climate change has both negative and positive consequences. We aren’t the ones that pollute and cause all these changes. We can only adapt to the changes we experience and use the positive effects, but also deal with the negative effects, which is much more difficult.

Can you tick off the top three negative effects and the top three positive effects?

The negative effects are the loss of traditional Inuit knowledge and the hunters’ livelihood. They are the ones that live closest to nature, and if they can’t sustain themselves we will lose some of that ancient knowledge. Another negative effect is in the damage to infrastructure. When the permafrost melts, the roads and airports become very unstable. We are also experiencing much more violent storms with hurricane force winds and rains that melt all the snow. In Nuuk this fall, there have been so many days you couldn’t even go outside. We see it more and more. When you’re used to very cold but stable winters, it’s annoying and distressing to see all this rain and these violent storms. We also like snow in the winter when it’s dark because snow lightens things up. As for the positive effects, of course, there’s more fresh water for developing hydroelectric power plants. I mentioned the minerals becoming more assessable. For the people in southern Greenland, climate change has a positive effect on the growing season. The vegetable industry is blossoming. For the first time in the my life, a couple of weeks ago, I could buy cabbages grown in Greenland.

Could you ever imagine vegetable production being a significant part of the economy?

No. Even with climate change, we will still have relatively long winters and a short growing season compared to other agricultural countries. In a limited time period, maybe we can sustain some of the economy by producing what we can. I think Alaska is exporting tomatoes, for example. We might do that some day. And because we don’t have the diseases or threats like other countries do, we’re able to grow vegetables organically.

Can you speculate what Greenland’s climate policy would or should be, post-Kyoto?

I think with Kyoto-type limits we have a challenge, because we are not as advanced in our development as, for example, Denmark is. So we have to have room to develop our industries. At the same time we are trying to use renewable energy wherever possible, for example by getting electricity from hydroelectric power plants, which is cheaper in the long run. It’s a question of balancing industrial development while using clean energy and renewable energy wherever we can.

Is the government party to the Kyoto Protocol?

We are part of the current Kyoto protocol. We ratified that. But it’s still Denmark that negotiates on behalf of us, and we have to negotiate with Denmark on whether they will allow us to develop industrially in a post-Kyoto framework. That’s an issue that we are discussing.

If you felt that Greenland’s development was being constrained, can you imagine the country, once independent, opting out of a global environmental agreement on the same basis as, say, India?

Yes. We have to tackle much bigger issues with regard to education and social problems. If we have to ratify a post-Kyoto protocol, and we know we can’t afford to reduce by whatever numbers they come up with, we have to prioritize. We need funds to educate many more Greenlanders. It’s a major threat to our society if we don’t. We have social problems as well that we have to deal with, like many other indigenous people around the world. So we have to invest in both campaigns and help Greenlanders solve their problems. It will be difficult to justify to the public that we’re taking money away from education and social problems like violence against women and sexual abuse, to spend on buying [cutting-edge] environmental technology. If we can’t resolve this issue about whether we can grow our economy and industry to a more advanced state, then I think there’s a possibility we will opt out of a post-Kyoto protocol. But we will still be focusing on reducing our emissions, because we are investing a lot of money in power plants and campaigns on how people can save electricity and issues like that. The message shouldn’t be that if we opt out, we aren’t serious about climate change. We are very serious, but we have limited financial resources.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

What's happening in Greenland?
Deputy Foreign Minister Inuuteq Holm Olsen talks about migrating polar bears, thawing permafrost and the fat of Inuit dog sledders in a warmer world.