Greenland’s Prime Minister Looks on Global Warming’s Bright Side

In Longreads

Sofus Frederiksen lives in a small river valley above a sheltered stretch of Greenlandic fjord, where in the winter slabs of floating ice fuse into a pale blue sheet. Frederiksen, a 49-year-old farmer of Danish and Inuit descent, built his house himself, and his 10 horses, 95 cows, and about 500 sheep make his farm one of the most productive businesses in the small town of Narsaq. From his kitchen, where pictures of his grandchildren cover the refrigerator, a window frames a 2,300-foot mountain, a steep slope of black rock and white snow. There, an Australian company called Greenland Minerals & Energy hopes to build an open-pit mine, extracting uranium and what it says is one of the largest deposits of rare earth metals in the world. Like many in Greenland, the Frederiksen family thinks it’s a great idea. “We know that we have to move, and we have accepted it,” says Frederiksen’s wife, Suka. “We are only two people here against hundreds of jobs working in the mine. We tell ourselves that we have to give something for the Greenlandic people.”

The mountain is a reminder of the choices Greenland faces as its government scrambles to energize an economy heavily dependent on Denmark, the country that colonized it in the early 1700s. Narsaq also happens to be the birthplace of the country’s prime minister, and she is a strident supporter of mining. A native Greenlander with a broad face, bright eyes, and a smile that breaks like sunlight, Aleqa Hammond, 48, is the first woman to occupy the island’s highest office. Elected just over a year ago, she came to power on promises to mine the country and put it on the path to independence. “We have mountains with uranium content,” she says. “We have mountains with gold. We have mountains with iron. We have mountains with zinc and lead. We have mountains with diamonds. We have mountains that are there for us to use and bring prosperity to our people.”

Greenland is one of the few countries cheering global warming, or at least openly making the most of it. The melting of its ice cap, which covers 80 percent of the island, is a major contributor to a rise in global sea levels. By the end of the century, these levels may climb as much as 2 meters—enough to drown island nations such as Kiribati and the Maldives and flood coastal cities around the world. The Arctic, where a few degrees of temperature can mean the difference between frozen and flowing, is one of the areas where the impacts of global greenhouse gas emissions are most evident. Traditional Inuit hunters are finding it increasingly difficult to carry out their trade. The whale migration has shifted. The ice on which they ride their dog sleds is often thin or absent. Storms and waves once held back by slabs of ice are eroding the coastline, pulling houses into the sea.

And yet, even as global warming puts an end to one way of life, it may enable another. Longer periods of open water mean easier access to resources for ships and workers and the unlocking of the Arctic for drill rigs and mineral exploration. “The people of the Arctic have to adapt very fast,” says Hammond. “I simply refuse to be the victimized people of climate change.” In their long history on Greenland, the Inuit have survived changes in the climate that wiped out other cultures, including the Vikings. “We’re going to manage this one too, just this time differently,” she says. “This time we have other options than just hunting. We have the right now to our own underground.”


There are 74 towns and settlements in Greenland, little clusters of brightly colored wooden houses studding the black, rocky periphery of the glistening ice sheet. No roads exist between them. Travel from one to the other is by boat, plane, helicopter, snowmobile, or dog sled. The entire country has just three traffic lights, all of them along a single stretch of road in the capital Nuuk (population 16,454). Greenland is about three times the size of Texas, but if you gathered its 56,000 residents, 89 percent of whom are of Inuit descent, into the Dallas Cowboys’ home stadium, they’d fill only a little more than half the seats. In the winter months the only flights to Greenland leave from Copenhagen; there are no planes on the weekends or on Wednesdays.

With a Scandinavian wage structure (Greenland’s minimum wage is about $15 an hour), an undereducated workforce, and the infrastructure challenges of the frozen Arctic, the country offers few competitive advantages. Fishing accounts for 90 percent of its exports, but its stocks are under stress. The island imports most of its food and almost all of its manufactured items. Its population is aging, and its economy, such as it is, is in decline. The public sector, including its many government-owned companies, employs about 50 percent of its workers.

Until 1953, Greenland was a Danish colony. Today, its official status is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, responsible for its domestic affairs but under Danish jurisdiction when it comes to national security and foreign policy. An annual grant from Denmark of 3.6 billion Danish kroner ($660 million) provides Greenland with roughly a quarter of its gross domestic product and almost half the government budget.

These payments, equivalent to a subsidy of about $12,000 for each of the island’s residents, help support a Scandinavian welfare system, and a large portion of the budget is spent smoothing out living standards between the larger towns and the periphery. The government subsidizes the cost of sending goods around the country; some 36 million Danish kroner go to paying shops in the smaller settlements to stay open.

In 2009 the governments of Denmark and Greenland agreed on a path to independence for the island, endorsed in a referendum by 75 percent of its voters. The two sides agreed to split revenue from minerals, oil, and gas until they balanced out the annual grant from Denmark, at which point Greenland would stand on its own. Tension exists, though: Denmark has contested Greenland’s assertion that it can mine and export radioactive minerals without its approval, threatening Hammond’s plans to fast-track the open-pit mine in Narsaq near the Frederiksens’ home.

“It’s important that people take over responsibility of their own lands, own lives, and own dignity,” says Hammond, “and fight hard to earn your own money—be a lord in your own house, make laws that are suitable for you and your people.”


Hammond and her family left Narsaq when she was 5 years old, moving to her mother’s hometown of Uummannaq, located on an island on a fjord about halfway up the country’s west coast. Two years later, her father died when his dog sled fell through ice on a hunting trip. Her mother, then 27, was left to raise three children. Hammond grew up without running water or central heating. Unable to afford imported food such as chicken, pork, or vegetables, the family subsisted on fish, seal, and whale meat hunted by Hammond’s extended family. “We had the very best food, compared to those that were rich and bought from the stores,” she says. “What I had was ecological and wild, the correct meat to grow up with. I just didn’t see it back then.”

Hammond’s mother raised her to be the wife of a hunter, teaching her how to butcher a seal and fashion its skin into jackets and boots. But Hammond didn’t want to stay at home. When she was 15 she left Greenland, traveling on her own to Sardinia, which she had learned about from a travel brochure a group of mountain climbers had left on the floor of Uummannaq’s one-room travel agency. “I had never been out of the country,” she says. “I had never seen a traffic lamp before. I had never seen a train.” By the time she turned 30, Hammond had visited more than 50 countries. “I never spent any money on clothes,” she says. “I never spent money on hairdressers or makeup or anything. I had two jobs, at least, because I wanted to gather money for the next ticket to the next country.” At home, in between her travels over a decade and a half, she trained a team of sled dogs, taking them out to go fishing or shooting with her grandfather and her uncles. When she was 20 she tried to enter a local sled race. The organizers wouldn’t allow a woman to participate, but Hammond persuaded them to let her race informally, as long as she got out of the way if a male competitor tried to pass her. She and her 12 dogs came in first.

Hammond, a member of the Siumut party, was first elected to Parliament in 2005 after a career promoting tourism in Greenland and a four-year stint as commissioner of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a multinational organization representing the indigenous people of the Arctic. She draws her political support primarily from workers and the unemployed in the outlying towns who feel left out of the modern economy. As finance minister in 2007 and 2008, Hammond was already advocating the use of the island’s mineral wealth as a means for breaking free of Denmark. After taking office as prime minister in April 2013, one of her first acts was to boycott a meeting of the Arctic Council, the highest-level intergovernmental body dedicated to the polar region, saying she wouldn’t attend unless Greenland had its own seat, independent of Denmark.

In an interview with a Danish reporter in November, Hammond disparaged the grant money Greenland receives from Denmark, painting it as an obstacle to independence. The biggest cultural gift she received from the country, she added, was steak with onions and gravy. “I am the first premier of Greenland that talks about independence so freely, so openly,” she says. “The former premiers talked about higher autonomy and taking over jurisdiction from Denmark bit by bit. Maybe I’m saying it a little louder and a little different. Maybe I’m not so diplomatic as others. I say, get used to it, that’s the way we’re going.”

Few in Greenland oppose mining outright, though some object to the extraction of radioactive materials. “What you can fish is no longer sufficient to cover all the cost of today’s society,” says Kuupik Kleist, Hammond’s predecessor as prime minister and her most powerful political opponent. “My fear is that if we don’t see new activity and create new incentives and new jobs, then we will be facing very hard times.” Kleist is against the extraction of radioactive elements such as uranium, but otherwise his differences with Hammond are primarily over tone, especially in relation to Denmark. “We’ve had confrontations with whomever we’re supposed to be cooperating with,” he says. Hammond, who views the relationship between the two countries in terms of empire and exploited, has said she will establish a “reconciliation commission” to help Greenlanders come to terms with their colonial past. Kleist, who belongs to the left-wing Inuit Ataqatigiit party, scoffs at the implied comparison to countries such as South Africa.

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In other parts of the world, Denmark engaged in the worst practices of European colonialism. Danish ships carried tens of thousands of slaves to plantations in the West Indies. But in Greenland, the relationship was less exploitative than paternalistic, and commercial. Denmark went to great lengths to preserve the Inuit culture, insisting that the sons of Danes who had married Inuit women be raised in the traditions of their mothers. “It was important to keep Greenlanders Greenlandic to provide seal hunters,” says Inge Seiding, an expert in Danish colonial history at the University of Greenland in Nuuk. By the middle of the 20th century, Denmark was no longer comfortable seeing itself as a colonial power. In 1953 it declared Greenland to be a Danish county like any other and launched an effort to bring the still largely traditional population into its modern welfare economy. The Danish government told seal hunters their future lay in fishing. Small settlements were shut down, their residents relocated closer to work and services.

The modernization push was introduced with the best of intentions, but for many Greenlanders it marked a turbulent period. For decades, Greenlanders sat on the sidelines of the global economy, lacking the experience and education to fill the better paying jobs. Even today, education levels remain low, especially in the smaller towns. Rates of unemployment, substance abuse, and suicide are high. The better paid, more prestigious professions—doctors, helicopter pilots, teachers, civil servants—continue to be dominated by Danes. Half of the Greenlanders who leave the island to get an education don’t come back. In March, Kleist received from his half-sister, who also lives in Greenland, the picture of a man she thought might be his father—one of the thousands of Danes who came to work on the island in the 1960s, impregnated local women, and disappeared back to Denmark. “What might make Denmark different from other colonial powers in the last century is a lack of acknowledgment that it was a colonial power,” says Kleist. “In Danish history books, this is not a big chapter.”


In October, after a bruising political battle, Hammond pushed a bill through Parliament that overturned a 25-year-old ban on the extraction of radioactive minerals, including uranium, from Greenland. It passed by a single vote. The next day the government approved what Jens-Erik Kirkegaard, Hammond’s minister for Industry and Mineral Resources, called “the largest commercial project to date in Greenland,” the construction of an iron mine at the foot of the ice cap about 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Nuuk. In March, Hammond’s government gave the go-ahead for another project, an open-pit ruby mine not far from Nuuk. In the coming months, applications are expected to move forward on a large zinc mine in the country’s north, a nickel mine in the west, and a small rare earth metals mine in the south. Companies are prospecting for gold and diamonds up and down the coast. “The first one to go into production is going to be a significant signal to the industry that things are going to be possible in Greenland,” says Kirkegaard.

The proposed mine above the Frederiksen farm is shaping up to be Hammond’s next big fight. Narsaq has a little more than 1,400 residents, down from about 2,000 in the 1990s when the warming of the nearby seas drove the shrimp stocks up the coast, collapsing the fishery. If the project is approved, crushed ore will flow through a pipeline along a river valley north of town to a harbor built on the fjord, where a chemical plant will concentrate the uranium into yellowcake. Tailings from the mine will be stored in a natural lake on another part of the mountain above the town, and even many who support the project worry that dust from the open pit will have dangerous consequences to their health and the environment. “The government thinks that this particular mine will solve all of Greenland’s problems,” says Avaaraq Olsen, a local councilor from Narsaq. “But I think it will create other problems.”

Hammond’s victory in lifting the uranium ban was Pyrrhic. It divided the country and cost her the majority in Parliament and the support of many in her own party. And then there’s Denmark’s position that it needs to first grant approval before any radioactive material is moved. In January, Hammond and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said they expected to reach an agreement by yearend, but the two sides remain far apart on the issue of jurisdiction. Meanwhile, commodity prices have plunged as economic projections for countries including China, India, and Brazil have dimmed, putting many of Greenland’s mining projects on, or perhaps under, the edge of profitability. In the capital Nuuk, where Hammond’s support is weakest, Greenland’s elite are in open revolt, criticizing her for being overly confrontational. Charges of nepotism after her boyfriend was briefly hired by one of her ministers and a scandal involving an almost 20-year-old fraud conviction for using a credit card without funds have added to her misery. (Hammond denies that she had anything to do with the hiring of her boyfriend.) There’s talk of a leadership challenge when her party meets this summer. “My life is a battle every day, and these were the biggest battles I ever had,” says Hammond. “But they have not seen the best of me yet. They haven’t seen the strongest person in me yet.”

At the end of March, Hammond hosted a visit from Thorning-Schmidt and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in her mother’s hometown of Uummannaq deep in the Arctic Circle. In an effort to raise awareness about the warming of the world, the UN’s top diplomat donned a sealskin coat and pants and rode a dog sled across a frozen fjord that locals said was melting for increasing periods during the year. At the end of the visit, Ban invited Hammond to address world leaders at a UN climate change conference in New York in September. “There may be still many studies to make, the nature and the impact of the climate change, but [there is] one simple, plain fact: Climate change is happening much, much faster than we might think,” he told reporters at the end of his tour. “We cannot negotiate with nature.” And yet, as Hammond is trying to prove, you can sometimes make the best of it.

First published in Bloomberg Businessweek.


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Stephan Faris
Stephan Faris is Enterprise Editor at the European edition of Politico. Prior to that, he was a contributor to Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Atlantic. He has lived in and written from Beijing, Nairobi, Istanbul, Lagos, and Rome and covered stories across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Liberia. His book, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese.