Reykjavík Strikes Back: Iceland And The Climate Strike - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Reykjavík Strikes Back: Iceland And The Climate Strike

Published September 23, 2019

angela rawlings
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Millions of people across the planet have taken to the streets calling for urgent action on the climate crisis. The student climate strikes led by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg encouraged people of all ages to join them by walking out of work on Friday, September 20th. The Global Climate Strike is timed to coincide with the UN’s Emergency Climate Summit being held in New York City. 

Greta Thunberg sailed to New York City last month in order to lead the Global Climate Strikes in proximity to the Emergency Climate Summit. The Global Climate Strike runs from September 20th to 27th, with actions organised in 150 countries, and Iceland was no exception.

Climate strike for the glaciers

“This is the first time I’ve actually come to a protest,” said Nico Borbely. He is a Fulbright scholar studying Icelandic as a Second Language at the University of Iceland. “I heard that there was going to be the Global Climate Strike. I’m originally from the United States but I happened to be in Iceland during this first one. I would have gone to one wherever I was but I looked on globalclimatestrike.net and saw that is was there at Austurvöllur in front of Parliament.”

“In Iceland, we used to be a tiny group of people shouting about it from a corner, and now all of a sudden, it’s a mass movement. This is amazing.”

Nico held a sign emblazoned with “Loftslagsverkfall fyrir jöklana.” “It means Climate Strike for the Glaciers. It’s a tribute to Greta Thunberg’s iconic sign.”

His sign is particularly attuned with recent news of the first glacier funeral, staged in Iceland last month. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir wrote an op-ed article for the New York Times, wherein she laid out the Icelandic government’s plan to address the climate crisis over the next two decades, ending with the plea, “Help us keep the ice in Iceland.”

Art for the climate

List fyrir Loftslagið, or Art for the Climate, is a group of five artists who organize for environmental action. They organised Reykjavík’s sign and T-shirt making workshop at City Hall to kick off the week of Global Climate Strike. They are supported by funds from Náttúruverndarsjóður Pálma Jónssonar. 

Sarah Ehrler’s poster mixes pop culture with wordplay, punning, “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your coals.” She is an ERASMUS student from Germany, studying Environmental Sciences at the Agricultural University of Iceland for one semester. The idea for her sign came from attending protests in Germany. “We have a very big Fridays for Future group in Germany. I’ve only attended big protests, not every week as I also have to study sometimes.”

Mayor for the climate

Reykjavík’s mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson stopped in to make a T-shirt with List fyrir Loftslagið, choosing to print “Stopp CO2” in orange. He commented, “We have maybe been resting in the warm feeling that our carbon footprint is lower than other cities because of the central heating system that was introduced in the 20th century. There was an idea that this work was finished in the oil crisis of the 70s. But now we are dealing with both how we handle waste management and also transport.”

Dagur emphasised local and international figures as inspirational for Reykjavík’s current climate action. “We are doing what the city can, both putting this on the agenda for several years now but also embracing the civic engagement and activism that is coming, partly inspired by Greta but also by a number of people in our society who have been vocal, including Andri Snær Magnason.”

“I have been doing my best to get involved by spreading awareness, talking about it as much as possible with people in everyday life and adjusting my own actions.”

Andri Snær’s book ‘On Time and Water’ will be published this autumn. Combining personal stories with interviews and travel writing, his book takes on mythology in a melting world through glaciers, grandmothers, and holy cows. Andri Snær recently memorialized the former glacier Ok.

Climate strike for animals

List fyrir Loftslagið co-organiser Hrund Atladóttir has had environmental activism at the centre of her own art practice. As an animator, she has taken over the light façade of Harpa on Reykjavík’s harbourfront. The lights depict Nordic animals at risk moving across the glass front, specifically arctic foxes, polar bears, eagles, and whales. Hrund’s light display is visible on September 20th and 27th, the start and the end of the week of this climate action.

“In Iceland, we still have these nature beliefs, animism,” Hrund explained. “It’s really alive with us still. Nature is super important for your subconscious, for your mental health. Not just as a resource, not just to clean the air, but also for us as animals to survive mentally.”

Hrund selected wild animals as a way to highlight wildlife for city dwellers. Each animal is connected to an environmental concern, as she outlined with her choice of a whale. “The fact that they’re still hunting whale, that’s absurd. We can do something about it, in our own garden.”

March for the climate

With the signs ready, hundreds of people marched from Hallgrímskirkja to Austuvöllur in front of Parliament to raise awareness for urgent climate action. Provocative statements such as “Húsið brennur” (“The house is burning”) and “Pull the emergency brake” bobbed along with the sea of protestors.

The former Sudanese flag was stretched wide between local resident Muhand Mohammed’s arms as he walked down Skólavörðustígur in the centre of the march. The flag was a notable addition to the slogan placards, without words but layered with blue for water (the River Nile), yellow for land (the Sahara), and green for farmland when blue and yellow are mixed. 

“We live in a total global world. We are as responsible for the elephants in Africa, for the palm oil on the other side of the planet. It needs to be a global thing. We’re eating animal products from all over the world. If you get a frozen pizza, you’re eating American cheese. It’s all connected.”

Muhand’s participation in climate action began in 2015, after which he protested at the UN’s Climate Change Conference COP22 in Marrakech, Morocco as well as COP23 in Bonn, Germany the following year. “My friend told me about the protest here, so I joined,” explained Muhand. 

Humour for the climate

Another resident, Jessica Bowe, shouted “strætó glam!” as she marched, a way to encourage the use of public transport through fashion activism. “How do we get more people to use the bus—better routes? Yes. More frequent stops? Absolutely. But it’s also about making it sexy.”

As a self-proclaimed naptivist, Jessica used comedy on the march to brainstorm non-conventional ways to raise climate awareness. “If we’re talking about carbon tax on resources, what kind of activities require no energy? Napping. Carbon-neutral is so last year. We need to do carbon-negative activities. Napping.” 

While humorous, Jessica’s proposals parallel the recent talking points of the Icelandic government on taking climate action through carbon-neutral solutions in part driven by retooling approaches to transportation in the country.

Tourists for the climate

Jess Beck spent her first day in Iceland joining the Global Climate Strike. It was also her 40th birthday. Despite birthday and vacation, it was important for Jess to attend the strike. “I would have joined wherever I was, in New York. But I’m here, and this is incredible.”

Jess is a member of New York City’s radical performance community Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir. The community has been active for almost twenty years seeking what they call earth justice. Their actions have included a ritual for permafrost as well as public performance protesting Monsanto/Bayer.

Iceland for the climate

Nico underscored the importance of personal action towards the climate crisis. He said, “I have been doing my best to get involved by spreading awareness, talking about it as much as possible with people in everyday life and adjusting my own actions. I don’t eat meat. I don’t own a car. I try to only use public transportation or car-share whenever possible.”

Hrund agreed. “We live in a total global world. We are as responsible for the elephants in Africa, for the palm oil on the other side of the planet. It needs to be a global thing. We’re eating animal products from all over the world. If you get a frozen pizza, you’re eating American cheese. It’s all connected.”

Of Iceland’s role in the Global Climate Strike, Hrund was enthusiastic. “The fact that it becomes a mainstream thing, that’s super important,” she commented. “In Iceland, we used to be a tiny group of people shouting about it from a corner, and now all of a sudden, it’s a mass movement. This is amazing.”

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