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Iceland’s Prime Minister Talks Climate Change and Gender Equality Over Ice Cream

7 minute read

Many cultures have native words for unique experiences. In Spain, families and friends sitting around after finishing a meal are having a sobremesa. Germans enjoying the solitude of being alone in the woods experience Waldeinsamkeit. In Iceland one such word is isbiltur, which describes a road trip to get ice cream, a hallowed family tradition on the island nation.

So when Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir visited London recently, she was persuaded to join TIME for a quick isbiltur–a short drive from her country’s modernist embassy in upmarket Knightsbridge to an Icelandic ice cream shop on the west side of town. “You know, I think ice cream walks may be more common today than drives,” she says as the town car crawls through London traffic, noting that her family prefers to go on foot to sample one of the many ice cream parlors in the capital, Reykjavik. “We are very conscious of being green.”

The progressive update is true to form for Jakobsdottir, at 43 one of the youngest women to lead a European country. Iceland may be small, with just 350,000 people, but it’s home to big ideas that are turning the heads of international policymakers. Iceland is already ranked the best country in which to be a woman by the World Economic Forum, and Jakobsdottir’s government is rolling out the world’s toughest equal-pay legislation.

One of the only government heads from an environmentalist party, Jakobsdottir wants to make the country a leader in climate action too, with an ambitious plan to make Iceland carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years before the target set for Iceland’s neighbors in the E.U. “It can be an advantage to be small,” she says. “You can do things bigger and faster. You can actually change everything in a very short time.”

It’s a tough time to be a politician in Iceland. Traditional parties have seen their vote share tumble since the banking crisis of 2008, and the three men who served as Prime Minister in the four years before Jakobsdottir were each driven from office early by poor performance or scandals.

As leader of the small, liberal Left-Green Party since 2013, Jakobsdottir manages to be an exception. “People see her as an honest broker, someone who just says what she means,” says Stefania Oskarsdottir, a professor of politics at the University of Iceland. The likability factor is on show as Jakobsdottir arrives at Bears, a family-run ice cream parlor. She chats in Icelandic to the owners’ young daughter and pores excitedly over their stash of chocolate-covered licorice, a national staple that she demands TIME try.

Voted Iceland’s most trusted politician in 2016, Jakobsdottir was perhaps the natural choice to lead the coalition government the Left-Greens formed with two center-right rivals in 2017. But she is in a fragile position. Her government has a majority of just three seats, and the economic fallout of the collapse in March of Iceland’s budget airline WOW Air could make it hard to hold the coalition together.

But Jakobsdottir is not afraid of a challenge. “My problem in my life–and also my fortune–is to always say yes,” she says between bites of Icelandic ice cream. “When people ask me to do interesting things I tend to do them.” In 1996, at 20, she appeared in a music video for an Icelandic indie band, running through the streets of Reykjavik. Following her “15 seconds of fame,” Jakobsdottir studied literature and entered politics after getting involved in activism. She recalls lying in the street outside the Prime Minister’s office to protest Icelandic support for the Iraq War in 2003.

Now working inside the building, Jakobsdottir remains not quite satisfied with the state of her country. Even with policies like a ban on sexist advertising and a mandatory balance of men and women on company boards, she rolls her eyes at the suggestion that Iceland is a feminist utopia. “If it was this paradise for gender equality, I would be the 13th woman Prime Minister and not the second. We obviously have a long way ahead.” She is particularly frustrated by the persistence of domestic violence in Iceland–experienced by 1 in 5 women–and sexual harassment.

Still, other countries see Iceland as an example. Portugal, Germany and the Nordic nations are considering re-creating its equal-pay legislation–the first in the world to enforce equal pay by penalizing companies that can’t prove via audits they’re paying men and women the same salary for the same work.

But the gap in Iceland will be hard to bridge; in 2018, men were still paid an average of 22% more than women. The Prime Minister says she knows “very well” how difficult women find it to demand more money, when they may not even know what colleagues are making. Telling women they just have to ask for more is “not the solution,” Jakobsdottir says. “You can’t place all responsibility for a structural change on the individual.”

A single piece of legislation will not end workplace inequality either, she adds. “Realistically, it has to be a generational change. The most important things we’ve done for equality is to make it possible not to have to choose between having a career and having children or a family.” Iceland, which since 2000 has offered both mothers and fathers generous paid parental leave, has one of the highest rates of female labor-force participation in Europe. “It’s not often that legislation actually changes people’s values. But this did.”


On Jakobsdottir’s other political priority, though, Iceland doesn’t have time for a generational change. Climate change has already had visible effects on the country. Scientists say it is losing more than 15 sq. mi. of its glaciers each year. Fishing, which contributes around 30% of exports, is also under threat from ocean acidification. “We need action, now, and we’re actually setting out how we’re going to fulfill our goals,” Jakobsdottir says.

In September, she launched a fully funded 34-step plan to cut emissions by 40% by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Iceland has a head start over other countries, as geothermal resources already provide most electricity and heating. Now the government is targeting transport “with very tangible projects,” the Prime Minister says, like banning fossil-fuel cars after 2030.

There’s a tension, though, between her vision for Iceland’s climate leadership and the country’s growing dependency on aviation. The recent explosion in tourism has seen flight numbers surge, and emissions from aviation grew by more than 13% between 2016 and 2017. “Obviously, we haven’t found renewable solutions to that,” she admits.

But the growing urgency around climate action makes her optimistic, she adds. The onetime demonstrator “can’t help but sympathize” with increasingly restive climate activists, like the Icelandic schoolchildren who have been striking weekly since February, inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. “I consider it support for us politicians who want to do something about it.”

By the time Thunberg’s generation is running the world, Jakobsdottir will likely be doing something else. As she finishes up her ice cream, she says she’s contemplating a return to the literary world. “Politics gives you an exceptional insight into human interaction. And you find yourself in the strangest circumstances,” she says. “You know, I think I’d like to write a play.” If life so far is anything to go by, she’ll have plenty of material.

Correction, July 26

The original version of this story misstated the size of the majority held by Prime Minister’s Katrin Jakobsdottir’s coalition government in Iceland’s parliament. The government has a three person majority, not a one person majority.

Correction, July 29

The original version of this story misstated the politician who is Europe’s youngest female leader. Denmark’s 41-year-old Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen is Europe’s youngest female leader, not Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

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Write to Ciara Nugent at ciara.nugent@time.com