Interview with Pétur Ásgeirsson, Iceland‘s Senior Arctic Official

9 September 2021
Pétur Ásgeirsson has worked for the Icelandic government for nearly 30 years and is no stranger to the Arctic. From his time working in Greenland as a diplomat to his boat trips to the remote High North, learn about Pétur‘s background, what he is looking forward to most in his new role as Senior Arctic Official and his most memorable Arctic experiences.

What is your background, and how do you feel it has prepared you for your role as a Senior Arctic Official?

I have worked for the Icelandic government for 28 years. First for seven years in the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, and since 1999, at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. For fourteen years I was in charge of administration and consular affairs and in 2013 I was appointed Ambassador. On 1 July the same year, I was appointed Iceland’s first Consul General in Nuuk in Greenland. I was the first professional diplomat to reside in Greenland since World War II. I was in Greenland until autumn 2017 and after that in Ottawa, Canada where I spent almost four years as Ambassador.

Of course, my whole career as a civil servant has prepared me for my current position as Senior Arctic Official (SAO), but it stands to reason that my four years in Greenland certainly gave me insight into life in the Arctic and the conditions that people in the Arctic face from day to day. My wife and I both had a wonderful time in Greenland. We loved the people, the dramatic landscape and we enjoyed the opportunities we got to strengthen the ties between Iceland and Greenland.

I might add that after a month on the job as SAO, I have come to realize that my time as Director General for Administration, including experience of budgeting, will benefit me in my current position. As anybody knows that has dealt with national budgeting, it takes experience to handle that on a professional and effective level. Of course, after eight years away from this work I'm a bit rusty but I can feel the old skills coming back.

What elements of your work with the Arctic Council are you most looking forward to?

In my opinion, climate change and the alarmingly rapid Arctic warming are the most important issues for the Arctic Council to address. We have seen in the past that the Arctic Council, and the research done under its auspices, has had a considerable effect on development of international understanding and attitudes towards this global crisis. I believe that goes to show the importance of the Arctic Council and the responsibility it has to draw attention to and seek solutions to address this situation.

I think it is completely appropriate to share with you that I am very proud of my predecessors and the Icelandic Chairmanship team and the progress they made on several fronts under difficult circumstances. I feel that I have a responsibility to influence if I can the Arctic Council to hold the course regarding some of the most important priorities set forth by Iceland during its Chairmanship.

An important example of this is the blue bioeconomy, where I believe Iceland is a global leader. This ideology, in my opinion, is important, not only for the fishing industry but can also be applied in many other areas of food production around the world. The old proverb “waste not want not” describes this idea in only four words, although of course it is more complicated than that.

Other areas I want to mention are the emphasis that Iceland put on gender equality during its Chairmanship, and also the importance of carrying on with the work to find solutions for the increasing plastic pollution in the Arctic Ocean.

What are some of the challenges that you see for the Arctic Council that you are looking forward to tackling in your new position?

After following the work and the cooperative spirit that the eight Arctic States have shown during the 25 years since the Ottawa Declaration, I am very pleased and proud to be entrusted with representing Iceland in the Arctic Council. I have every confidence that this solidarity and firm resolve for peaceful cooperation in the Arctic area will remain into the future. I believe that the last 25 years clearly show the benefit and the need for the Arctic States to closely cooperate on increasing prosperity and well being for the inhabitants of the Arctic area and other areas likely affected by climate change.

What is your most memorable Arctic experience?

As Consul General of Iceland to Greenland I had the opportunity to experience the Arctic in a way that most outsiders seldom can. I had my own boat in Nuuk, and during two summers I traveled with Greenlandic friends, who had their on boat, first from Nuuk to South Greenland, all the way to Nanortalik, and the second summer from Nuuk to Uummannaq, almost 500 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. My son traveled with me on these trips and together we published a book about this experience with my text and his photographs. Unfortunately, the book is only published in Icelandic. When you ask me about my most memorable Arctic experience - you can probably imagine that these trips are without doubt my most memorable Arctic experiences, although I had many other wonderful experiences in Greenland as well as some great moments traveling the highlands of Iceland both in summer and winter, throughout my life.