Fiji PM rebuffs 'move to higher ground' advice as Australia frets over climate

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Fiji’s prime minister hit back on Wednesday at remarks by an Australian politician that Fijians should seek higher ground in response to rising seas, backed up by a poll showing Australian voters see global warming as their top threat.

Prime Minister of Fiji and COP 23 President Frank Bainimarama speaks during the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel

Climate change has opened up a divide between Australia’s major parties ahead of the May 18 election, which polls suggest the government will lose, but in the Pacific the issue is an existential security problem as rising water levels are already forcing villages to relocate.

In a speech in Melbourne, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the climate crisis should rightfully play a role in voters’ decision making, and then took aim at comments from tennis-champ-turned-government-lawmaker John Alexander.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Alexander had told a voter forum last week that while Bainimarama had said Australia should stop burning coal, the priority should be helping move settlements in Fiji and its neighbors to higher ground.

“I do feel entitled to give a return serve,” Bainimarama said on Wednesday. “The decision to relocate the Fijian community may seem like an easy one. But abandoning your home isn’t some cold and calculated business decision.

“For those affected it is a deeply emotional loss... I am keen to hear what (Alexander) believes the people of Kiribati should do in the face of rising seas, where the highest point in their country sits at just 1.8 meters (6 ft) above sea level.”

The speech came as campaigning for Australia’s election reaches fever pitch.

The opposition Labor Party has promised a renewable energy target, increased adoption of electric vehicles and to make polluters buy credits to offset emissions, policies the ruling Liberal-National coalition has said are too expensive, while also pledging to reduce Australia’s emissions.

Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute said Australians ranked climate change as the top of a list of possible threats to national interest, according to a poll of 2,130 adults it published on Friday.

The poll found 61 percent of Australians believe it should be addressed even if it involved significant costs. That was an increase of two percentage points from a year earlier, mostly driven by people aged between 18 and 44.

“I think Australians are responding to a policy vacuum on climate change in Australia, as well as the change in weather conditions,” said Natasha Kassam, a research fellow at the Lowy Institute, told Reuters.

Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Nick Macfie