The comedian who upended Iceland politics now turns his attention to climate change
For Jón Gnarr, Texas is about as far from home as he can get - the comedian, author, ex-punk rocker and unlikely politician hails from Iceland.
But in his months as a temporary Texan, the former mayor of Reykjavik has discovered at least one similarity: At home and in Houston, it’s hard to get people too worked up about global warming.
If you bring up climate change in Reykjavik, “it’s like ‘yeah yeah yeah, whatever,’ ” he said. Texans, meanwhile, are “extremely good at adapting to the heat.”
Gnarr is a writer in residence this semester at Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research. He’s also teaching a screenwriting class at the University of Houston, where his students have created a TV show with an eco-conscious storyline: A major hurricane bears down on Houston, harsh weather caused by a warmer ocean.
Gnarr’s been called “the most famous person from Iceland who is not Björk.” (But he does know Björk. In fact, she wrote a song about Gnarr’s wife, her friend Jóhanna Jóhannsdóttir.)
After years of acting, writing and stand-up comedy, he launched a satirical bid for mayor of Iceland’s capital city in 2009, creating a party he called the “Best Party.” At first, it was much like comic Stephen Colbert’s bid for the U.S. presidency - a joke campaign that prodded at the emptiness of politicians’ promises.
But then he won. And it turned out Gnarr wasn’t bad at running a city.
In fact, he spent four years as mayor, and he’s widely credited for bringing Reykjavik back from economic collapse.
After he left his office in Reykjavik’s City Hall, Gnarr starred in the Icelandic comedy “The Mayor,” a scripted TV series that spoofed his own career in politics. Meanwhile, when Iceland’s president announced he wouldn’t run again, polls across the country indicated that if Gnarr wanted to run for office again, he had a good shot at being president.
He’s not interested.
Tattooed and energetic Gnarr, 50, has found a new purpose. He wants to spread the word about climate change.
Gnarr is the author of several books, including a three-volume memoir (the English translation of “The Outlaw,” the third book, was published last week). But when he appears at Brazos Bookstore Thursday night, he’ll be talking about the environment.
“CNN called Iceland the ‘ground zero of climate change’ because it’s so visible,” he said. “It’s warming so rapidly, and all the melting of the glaciers are at our doorstep.”
But while most people in Iceland believe climate change is real, he said, “they don’t necessarily agree that it’s a bad thing.”
In 2014, even the country’s prime minister argued that a warmer climate could help boost Iceland’s economy; melting glaciers feed the rivers, and warmer temperatures allow trees to grow, making forestry a viable industry.
And Gnarr won’t deny that Iceland’s more temperate climate has benefited him personally.
“Two years ago I planted two apple trees, and they’re doing very well and they’re growing and bearing fruit,” Gnarr said. “That would not have been possible 10 or 15 years ago.”
But still, he fears that people are overlooking the disasters that loom in the future, and he wants to fight that laid-back, “we’ll deal with it when it comes” mentality.
Gnarr is still shocked by his success in politics.
“I wasn’t prepared for the international attention,” he said. “Suddenly, after four years in office I had become some international figure, and I’d get letters from all over the world from people who said they were inspired by what we did.”
Now that he’s seen what a difference he can make, it’s hard to return to stand-up comedy. If anything, Gnarr believes he might use his skills (and his international platform) to spread the word about global warming - in Texas, in Iceland, and maybe beyond.
“We have to get out this message - no one really knows this or understands it,” he said. “I’ve been trying to find ways to get people interested.”
Most of the time, he believes, talk about climate change involves preaching to the choir. After all, few people watch a documentary about climate change unless they’re concerned about it already.
“So I’m digging and trying to find the comedy of climate change,” he said. “And get people to laugh about it and maybe understand it a little bit.”