An Audience with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson of Iceland

President Grímsson
President Grímsson

1st February 2015

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has been President of Iceland since August 1996, serving over five terms in office. I was fortunate enough to sit down and talk to him while he was passing through London, and I have recounted the highlights of our conversation here. We discussed four main topics: geothermal energy, benefits and disadvantages of volcanoes in Iceland, the non-profit organisation the Arctic Circle, and his favourite and least favourite things about being President.

Over a quarter of Iceland’s energy is geothermal. Very few people are employed in geothermal energy plants, because although these produce a large portion of energy, they are mainly automatic. The President said that geothermal energy is a viable alternate energy source for the rest of the world. Although Iceland sits on two tectonic plates that are moving apart, meaning that magma rises upwards, to heat a house, temperatures underground need only be 40°C. Hence, to access geothermal energy, one does not have to bore down kilometres, but rather around one hundred metres. This could be of a great advantage to us in the UK, where geothermal energy would help alleviate growing energy costs, while winters grow colder and summers warmer.

Not only does rising magma lead to a source of geothermal energy, it also heats springs. These have become the site for spas, which attract tourism. The rising magma also forms something that the country is famous for: volcanoes. But on the flipside, volcanoes erupt. When I asked the President whether he thought the advantages outweighed the disadvantages, he said that it depended on the timeline. Volcanoes have been erupting forever. There are minor eruptions all the time, and only a few major ones. Although these can cause ice to melt and floods to occur, which can destroy infrastructure such as bridges and mean that sometimes citizens are told to stay inside, major eruptions put Iceland on the front pages, which is good for tourism. Take, for example, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull: the first eruption of this type of volcano (it sits under a glacier) since airplanes were invented. Airplane engines had not been designed to cope with the resulting ash. To conclude, in the short term, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. But in the long term, things don’t look so great. The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, lies in a volcanic area, so in hundreds of years (no one knows when) there could be an eruption that puts its many inhabitants in danger.

The President set up the non-profit Arctic Circle in 2013 to facilitate discussion about climate change and the Arctic. He chairs the honorary board, and I asked him where he thought the next threat to the Arctic environment might come from. He said that it was coming from all around us, from heightened carbon dioxide levels in Europe and America, and not just from developing economies in the east, such as China and India. I asked him about potential drilling by Russia in the Arctic, and he said that the main potential driller is not Russia but instead the US, the UK, and Norway.

Finally, I had to ask him the clichéd but ever-interesting question: what are the best and worst things about being President? He said it was a difficult question, but he thought the best thing was being able to serve his country. I found his answer about the worst thing interesting: he told me that as President, everything is planned months or even years ahead, which means that unlike the everyday person, he can’t spontaneously decide to go on holiday.