Both Australia and New Zealand have revamped their Pacific policies this past year, partly to counteract China’s growing influence, and partly to address the inevitable effects of climate change. New Zealand’s foreign minister and a former Australian prime minister offered proposals for low-lying island countries recently.
Last week, New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters made his first visit to Kiribati, where he could not help but be struck by the fact that the highest point on the main island of Tarawa is just about ten feet. “Well, it’s quite stark,” Peters said, ”The world and countries concerned about climate change need to be doing something about it now.”
Koro Vaka’uta, the new Pacific News Editor of RNZ Pacific, went along on the trip and talked to residents who report that king tides now sweep sea water across the atoll five or six times a year. Some areas have been abandoned to the ocean, and she said villagers grow weary of rebuilding sea walls. President Taneti Maamau, who has always dismissed the climate change activism of his predecessor, Anote Tong, told a state dinner that he looks forward to working with New Zealand to strengthen the country’s resilience.
Last month, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed a sweeping plan: Australia, he said, should offer refuge to the people of small Pacific nations who may be forced to relocate when places like Kiribati and Tuvalu become uninhabitable. In exchange for citizenship, Australia would take control of their seas and fisheries.
Tuvalu’s Prime Minster Enele Sopoaga ridiculed that idea as a sort of imperialism. Australia, he said, should instead stop contributing to the problem, and abandon its reliance on dirty coal to generate power and as the country’s largest export: “They get the money,” he said, “but we are paying more than that in order to adapt.”