A frog that finds itself in boiling water immediately hops out. As did I when I dipped in a mountainside stream outside of Hveragerdi, Iceland. Forty-two degrees celsius, only two and a half degrees above that of the human body. Too hot for comfort. Just downstream a cold inlet relieves the hot river, and I climbed in amidst a flurry of bikinis, selfie-sticks and giggles.
“I can’t imagine not caring about climate change,” eighteen year old Hudson told me, flicking at the lurid green algae floating by. “I’m the youngest person on this program, but I already know I want to devote my life to this.” The forty-two students of The GREEN Program were in Iceland for ten fleeting days, taking a behind-the-scenes look at the country’s renewable energy infrastructure. A series of lectures at the University of Reykjavík was interspersed with visits to power plants and geothermal hot springs, camping and “superjeeping.”
Hudson is from Florida, and has just graduated from high school, where he started the Green Club and joined IDEAS For Us, an organization that seeks to develop local solutions to address environmental challenges worldwide. I crossed paths with IDEAS when in Florida on the Big Green Bus in 2011, and we excitedly talked about the people we both know, as well as the unfortunate complexity of tackling climate issues in the sunshine state. Under Governor Rick Scott state officials are not allowed to use the words climate change in any policy-making or communications. “When I first found out, I was so angry I wanted to shoot him. Then I got smarter. I realized we can fight climate change without them.”
The group headed back down the mountain on a wide mud-orange trail, scoured by thousands of touristing feet and mountain bike tires. I talked to students from all corners of the US and Canada, from Seattle and Philadelphia to New Brunswick and Vancouver. Each I asked, “what brings you here to Iceland? Why the GREEN program?” On their first day, the group was bubbling with the energy of navigating a new social scene. Answers ranged from “renewable energy is a fast growing field and I need relevant experience on my resume” to “I’ve just always wanted to save the world” to “Iceland is just a super sweet place to visit, how could I say no?”
We drove back to Reykjavík with Björg from South Iceland Adventures, the tour company that coordinates the GREEN Program in Iceland. Her face lit up in the rearview mirror when I asked after her highlights. “The last night we gather for the students to share what they have learned, and I am always moved to tears. This is not just about renewable energy, but taking them out of their comfort zone.
When you are hiking in deep snow in the dark in the winter program in January, that is when you learn about yourself.” As the lava mottled landscape flattened to city, we asked why she does what she does. “I simply love this country. I am addicted to Iceland.”
“Have no illusions. While geothermal electricity does have less environmental impact than solar or wind, we don’t do this for environmental reasons. It’s simply the cheapest.” The deadpan engineer at Hellisheidi Geothermal Plant hit play on an informational video about the plant, the second largest in the world. A line of pixels was missing on the right hand side of the screen. A few students in the group took notes. We headed down into the bowels of the plant to walk glass-walled corridors, looking out to the cavernous space in which the turbines are repaired. “I’m like a kid in a candy store here,” one student whispered. In the elevator on our way back up, people started talking about the importance of networking. “Hopefully we can all get jobs out of this!”
Ninety percent of GREEN program participants are engineering students, and as a disillusioned engineering major myself I couldn’t help but talk with them about their reasons for being in the field. Moving beyond the “it pays well”, we got to some light criticism of engineering as a theory of change. “We have the technology we need to use 100% renewable energy tomorrow. Where is the political will?” one girl offered. I nodded and added, “let alone the will to make this transition in a just way that raises quality of life for all, not just engineers and investors.” Adam Phoebe is the Director of Global Operations for the GREEN Program, another recovering engineer and an alum of GREEN himself. “The program was the first time I was able to see beyond a need to have a good job to make enough money to go on expensive vacations. I realized if I loved what I did I never had to “work” a day in my life.”
“You visited Hellisheidi? They are still preaching bullshit,” Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir tells us, sitting in a cafe opposite the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, of which she was a member for ten years, including one as the Minister of the Environment. “Only 10-18% of geothermal steam can be used for electricity. When I first said that in parliament the right wing was really outraged. Now it is common knowledge.” I was unsurprised to hear another side of the story after our buttoned-up introduction to Iceland’s electricity system. “We Icelanders have an ideology of somehow being special because of geothermal. At the same time we are building aluminum smelters that are belching carbon emissions exempted from the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme. And those smelters call for yet more electricity. We build and build, dams and geothermal, drowning and bleeding our country to sell below-market-rate electricity to foreign corporations.” The result is that Iceland has the second highest per-capita carbon emissions in Europe, despite its lauded 100% renewable electricity.
We walked quickly towards our next meeting, passing by the front entrance of the Althing. There lies a boulder, a crack held open by a steel cone. I paused to read the plaque: The Black Cone of Civil Disobedience. We rang a doorbell labelled Pirat and soon found ourselves sat on a rooftop balcony looking out over the old city of Reykjavík to the surrounding hazy mountains. “When they proposed that dam we organized the first civil disobedience in Icelandic history. It was innocent stuff,” Birgitta Jónsdóttir tells us, “just padlocks and banner drops. We lowered the image of a crack over a dam, that one was fun.” Birgitta is the founder of Iceland’s Pirate Party, a pragmatic poetician anarchist who happens to be a parliamentarian. “I’m so glad you met Kolbrún. She was too green for the Green Party.”
“I’ve been in theater forever. As artists, especially Icelandic artists, we have a unique connection to nature,” Kolbrún had told us. “I organized a gathering every Thursday at 1:30 in front of parliament to read poetry. We were the water drop that makes the hole in the stone. I never imagined I would find myself inside, but I did. I then stood in parliament yelling for 4 years to stop those dams, and we lost. I took it very personally. Everything we predicted came true. They imported workers. The sulfur emissions are damaging vegetation. All the profits are leaving Iceland. An iconic valley, gone forever.”
Our last long day of cycling brought us to Höfn, a small fishing village that is the second-largest town in southeastern Iceland. Having followed the southern edge of the immense glacier Vatnajökull over the previous days, our legs were sore, my hair was matted and we had long forgotten what clean clothing smells like. Riding on the energy of a landscape of infinite greens, raw peaks and whispered waterfalls, we finally rested our legs in the town swimming pool. Geothermally heated, such pools are cornerstones of community across Iceland. Children ran amok, shrieking as waves left the ice-cold plunge pool as older siblings jumped in. We laughed that the plastic tub had nothing on our mind-clarifying skinny dip amidst icebergs in Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon the night before. Now we found ourselves in hot water, forty degrees and rising, pool by pool.
“Joy is constructed of contrast,” I mused, sinking into the hottest pool. We only revel in the sunshine when it has been raining for days. A shower only yields cleanliness when you have tasted dirt. A downhill is a celebration only after a steep climb. A lake is a dam, is a catastrophe, only when you have known the verdant valley. My skin began to turn red and dry, urging me to get out. I listened, remembering the frog: when slowly heated she cooks alive.