Iceland, due to its abundant and inexpensive hydroelectric and geothermal energy, is an attractive location for energy intensive industries such as aluminum smelting. In 1998, an additional aluminum smelter was proposed which would require 700 MW of power to run – the electricity consumed by a small city. The smelter proposal galvanized Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir into action.
“People were led to believe that the proposal for the smelter would encourage people who had already moved away from the area to return. Not least of which were the fishermen, who had lost their jobs because of prior incentives for the ship owners to sell their fishing quotas to companies in more densely populated areas. These people were promised ‘jobs’ in the form of an aluminum smelter. Beyond jobs, the carbon emissions* from the smelter are exempt from the European Union’s Emission Trading Scheme, a significant hole with large consequences in terms of climate change.”
Not knowing anything about politics, protest or campaigns, Kolbrún went to work. With the help of other artists, she launched a campaign against the construction of the aluminum smelter, bringing attention to the energy intensity of the production and the environmental toll on the fragile Icelandic landscape. Soon the Left Green party approached her to run for parliament. Responding to her duty to defend nature, Kolbrún decided to run, thinking it would only be a four-year commitment.
To protest the smelter and the large hydropower plant, every Thursday at 1:30pm, poets, writers, visual artists and actors would stand outside the parliament building in downtown Reykjavik and read patriotic Icelandic poetry on loud speakers. The group wanted to remind decision makers of Iceland’s rich artistic history and its connection to the natural world and vocally hold this in stark contrast to the hydro plant and aluminum smelter project.
With 10 percent of the vote at election time, Kolbrún’s Left Green party won six seats in parliament, one of them hers.
While Kolbrún continued to fight against the smelter as a member of parliament, the proposal eventually passed. “I couldn’t believe it,” Kolbrún admitted. “Standing in parliament shouting at the top of your lungs for four years and I lost the battle.”
Soon an official report come out analyzing the effects of the project. “Everything we predicted came true – imported workers, damaged vegetation, profits leaving Iceland, selling cheap power to the smelter.” Nevertheless, the campaign brought climate change front and center in Iceland – a country that can easily sidestep guilt with nearly 100 percent renewably generated electricity and heating. Powering the smelter meant building more dams for hydropower, which meant more drowned land and substantial carbon emissions. With the aluminum smelting industry and a considerable transportation fleet however, Icelanders emit the second highest amount of carbon per capita in the European Union. Despite the success of the smelter project, Kolbrún aided in making climate change a topic of conversation in parliament. “Water drops eventually make holes in stones,” Kolbrún smirked, eyebrows raised.
*the emissions were not only carbon but other potent materials such as fluoride….
Before the aluminum smelter resistance, Kolbrún was not involved in environmental politics. “I was just an innocent theatre director at the time,” she said. “Growing up in coherence with nature is a part of Icelandic culture.” Now as a female artist, Kolbrún’ passion to protect the natural world has become like a reflex. “It’s instinct,” she replied matter-of-factly as she took a sip of coffee. “Fighting against the aluminum smelter is the same as fighting against human trafficking. We are all linked.”