Kate Higham is a young environmentalist with a big world view. In her final year at the University of Otago, she’s on track to complete a double law and arts degree, and hopes eventually to work in international climate change law and policy development. At 22, Higham has a clear understanding of the problems facing environmental experts in their race to slow global warming before it’s too late. Studying geography for her arts major has opened her eyes “to the urgency and scale of the challenges facing the world today”, she says. “These issues require cooperation and concerted action from the international community”.

The lack of progress made through various international conventions set up to save the planet shows that “we need to rethink our approach to international environmental law”. The Paris Agreement, for example, is in danger of failing as a result of nation states not honouring their carbon-reduction commitments. “The problem is that these are all non-binding agreements – member states have to actually sign up for them. The challenges are really problems of compliance liability – they require the adoption of a global community approach,” she says. “But because international environmental law is so fragmented, it’s hard to get a real collaborative response.”

* Part one: Depth of focus
* Part two: Front of mind
* Part three: Advocating for climate justice
* Part four: Telling jokes about the weather
* Part five: Tamara Stratton is engineering humanitarian solutions
* Part six: Making a stand
* Part seven: Against the Flow

It’s this dysfunction between the legislation and the growing global crisis that inspired Higham to consider a career in international environment law. She heads to the University of Copenhagen for a semester this year to do some papers on the topic and plans further study overseas for a post-grad degree. “I’m interested in climate litigation, of holding climate polluters to account,” she says.

Speaking with a distinctive southern burr that gives her away as coming from the deep south, Higham recounts growing up on the Otago Peninsula with its beautiful beaches and abundant wildlife, in a family “that was very conscious about environmental issues”. She first became aware of climate change as a teenager, during tramping trips in the Tititea Mount Aspiring and Aoraki Mount Cook National Parks; at Mueller Hut on Aoraki Mount Cook, she saw the impact of global warming on the retreating Tasman Glacier.

Studying geography fed into Higham’s interest in environmental law. Photo: Guy Frederick

A couple of years later, while at university, she worked as a research assistant at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (Niwa) for renowned climate scientist Dr Andrew Lorrey. The job involved looking at photographic records of different glaciers in Aotearoa New Zealand and measuring changes in the mass of ice over time. “It was eye-opening,” she says.

Protecting our oceans, she believes, is the biggest environmental challenge we have. “The moana that surround us are critical to everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand. They separate us from but also connect us to the world and are so important in terms of carbon.” The United Nations is working to establish a Global Ocean Treaty aimed at securing protection for marine life in international waters by 2030, though progress on this is currently stalled – another example of the lack of cohesion in how member states approach environmental challenges. “We have been a leader in the past in protecting the oceans, but there is so much more that we need to do – and we need to offer international leadership by example to get other countries on board with us and get the best protection for our blue planet as possible,” Higham says.

With her environmental advocate hat off, there’s another side to Higham that has nothing to do with global climate disasters and everything to do with simply enjoying life as a university student. Her enduring passion for music is what defines her for many people who know her, and when you hear she’s been playing the guitar since she was six years old, that’s not surprising. Where she once played classical, these days you’re more likely to find her jamming with friends on an electric guitar. “It’s part of my routine,” she says, “something I do for my own enjoyment”.

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