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He dismisses concerns about China’s recently attained status as the world’s largest and fastest-growing source of the greenhouse gas emissions that are thought to be causing the warming in the Arctic, saying that is just a function of its large population and expressing belief in the sincerity of its efforts to curb emissions. Coastal cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong are threatened by rising sea levels, just like cities elsewhere, he said.

“Countries beyond the eight Arctic countries are already predominant trading countries and are affected by the melting of the ice,” he said. “It is to everybody’s advantage that they should be a part of the dialogue.”

Development and increased shipping in the Arctic will occur, and bring with it pollution and other problems, no matter what, he said. “We have an open international regime. The ocean is an open highway” for all ships outside the 200-mile zone that belongs to national governments along each Arctic nation’s coasts, he said.

Mr. Grimsson said he worries about accidents like the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, which killed sea life, fouled 1,300 miles of beaches and took decades to clean up.

“The risk of oil spills does not just come from Shell or Exxon or BP; it could come from a cruise ship or big tankers. We already have enormous cruise ship traffic,” he said. “Many of us fear the first accident that will happen will be a cruise ship that will test the abilities of the U.S. or Russia in coming to the rescue.”

Surviving bank crisis

Mr. Grimsson is the only European head of state who successfully steered his country through a monumental banking crisis even worse than the one in the U.S. in 2008 and 2009 without being unseated by an economically stressed populace.

After the nation’s oversized banking system collapsed, he steered his country and its economy away from an overreliance on international banking and back to traditional endeavors such as fishing, tourism and aluminum smelting, while exploiting Iceland’s unique volcanic features to create the most extensive geothermal energy system of any nation.

Reflecting on his decision to allow big Icelandic banks to collapse without bailing out depositors in Britain and the Netherlands, Mr. Grimsson claimed vindication by the revival of Iceland’s economy while the rest of Europe fell back into recession.

“It is the most difficult decision I’ve ever taken. We let the banks fail. We didn’t pump money into the banks,” he said, after putting a bailout bill passed by the parliament before Icelandic voters in a referendum. “Why do people consider banks so holy that they cannot go bankrupt? What’s the difference between them and other major global corporations?”

The deep trauma experienced by Iceland’s small population of 322,000 is what led him to defy the wishes of other Western leaders and fly in the face of conventional wisdom in Washington.

He said it would have taken decades for Icelandic taxpayers to pay back all the banks’ debts. As it turned out, the bankruptcy estates of the banks held sufficient funds to make whole all the insured depositors eventually.

Mr. Grimsson viewed it as a choice between democracy and Wall Street. “It was not just a major economic collapse and financial crisis, but also a fundamental threat to our democratic institutions and harmony of our society. There were riots, protests; the police had to defend the parliament, the central bank,” he said.

With the economy now growing solidly and unemployment down to 6 percent, Iceland has become something of a marvel in economic circles.

“Every doomsday scenario turned out to be wrong,” he said. “It’s almost fascinating to see how democratic empowerment somehow became an economic stimulant. It gave people confidence. They saw they could move forward” and start to rebuild the economy after voters rejected the bailout.

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