Greenland and Climate Change 'The Arctic Has Taught Us to Be Stubborn'

Nowhere are the effects of climate change as obvious as in the Arctic. For Greenland, that may mean economic opportunity. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with Foreign Affairs Minister Per Berthelsen about how global warming might help the island.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Minister Berthelsen, do you consider Greenland to be a winner or a loser of climate change?

Berthelsen: Right now we are losers. Just take a look at the hunters and especially the fishermen in northern Greenland. Formerly, they were able to fish on thick ice for four months; now it is only one month. In the other three months, the ice is too thick for boats and too thin for dog teams. That creates a lot of problems both socially and financially. But I am hopeful and confident that we will manage to find new sources of income in the future -- and thus become a winner of climate change.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You are talking about the exploitation of natural resources…

Berthelsen: Of course. A warmer climate makes it easier to extract minerals and explore for oil off our coasts. We can only adapt to climate change, and we need to understand how best to do that. I am sure that within the next few years we will be able to find how we can maximize our new possibilities.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: One of the possibilities mentioned has been that of building a new aluminum smelter in Greenland. But such projects could lead to more greenhouse gas emissions, thus putting even more pressure on the climate.

Berthelsen: We are part of the Kyoto Protocol and concerned about our greenhouse gas emissions. Within the next five years, we will use one-eighth of our gross domestic product to construct four to five hydro-electrical power plants in order to change from diesel oil to clean energy consumption. We take the topic seriously and care about the negative consequences that climate change will have for other countries. We are part of a world where we exist together and need to help each other.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Income from further resource exploitation could help Greenland to become fully independent from Denmark. When will that eventually happen?

Berthelsen: So far, we haven't talked about independence. But, recently, we took a very important step. In November we had a referendum where 75 percent of the voters indicated they are in favor of self-governance. I hope that the Danish parliament will approve the referendum and it will be possible to officially introduce this next step on Greenland's National Day, June 21. But even under this scheme we will still be a part of Denmark for the next 20 or 30 years. We have a very good relationship with Denmark.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Where would an independent Greenland be located on the geopolitical map?

Berthelsen: Being a very small nation, we are heavily dependent on having good relations with as many partners as possible. Through the Inuit Circumpolar Council, we have excellent contacts to our fellow Inuit in Canada and Alaska, mainly on the cultural level. I am sure that there will be exciting possibilities on the trade level, too. But these topics are highly political -- in Danish we speak of a hot potato -- and we haven't discussed them deeply, so far. But we are concentrating on developing positive and constructive relations with our neighboring countries.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How about membership in the European Union?

Berthelsen: Right now we are outside of the EU. Before we make any further decisions, we have to find out what we could gain from possible membership and, at the same time, assess the cons of such membership.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The relation between Greenland and the EU has always been difficult. Now Brussels is seeking a more influential role in the Arctic. What is your response to that?

Berthelsen: We have a small population, and we know that there is a lot of potential in the Arctic. So we have to be flexible and accept that we don't have the resources to do the necessary exploration alone to create new income possibilities. But we need to make sure that we will be involved and we will be heard. Our interests need to be taken into account. If the EU wants us to accept its stronger involvement in the Arctic Council, we must ask that it shows more respect for the culture we have. It will be difficult if not impossible to take the EU seriously in the Arctic if it continues to oppose the use of sustainable natural resources -- like seals and whales -- in Greenland.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why is Greenland so attached to this part of its culture?

Berthelsen: No matter how modern we become, we will always see ourselves as a part of the environment that we live in. We have always utilized what nature could provide us in order to survive -- and that is the core of who we are. You have to imagine: Even though I am one of the leading politicians in Greenland, I still spend a couple of months catching my own fish. We are dependent on nature; we live off nature. Thus, an EU ban on seal products from Greenland is ridiculous. But we will fight these policies. Surviving in the Arctic has taught us is to be resilient and stubborn.

Interview conducted by Christoph Seidler
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