Elizabeth Kim standing in front of a poster.

Elizabeth Kim: Advocate for the ocean

There is just one global ocean and its health is critical for life on earth. Some of the biggest threats to ocean health – plastic pollution, overfishing, and climate change – require international solutions. At the United Nations, Elizabeth (Beiring) Kim ’94 presses the United States’ case for ocean policy and marine conservation.

Kim is a diplomat and senior ocean policy advisor for the Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs, part of the U.S. Department of State. In that role, she exercises both her legal skills and the scientific expertise she acquired in her UB doctoral program in marine ecology. (Not to mention her love for the ocean, first inspired when she learned to scuba dive at UB.)

“I often say I am bilingual in science and law, and that helps immensely in my job,” Kim says. “The ability to write well and to dispassionately analyze issues from all sides are the key skills that lawyers bring to this kind of job.”

I am committed to public service and to making the world – especially its ocean – a better place.

Kim’s office deals with issues ranging from maritime security to conservation to marine science. “I primarily work in international environmental law,” Kim says. “I represent the United States at the UN and other international forums. Right now, we’re in the midst of negotiating a new global treaty on the conservation and sustainable use of high seas biodiversity.”

The high seas are ocean waters so far from shore that they are beyond any country’s jurisdiction. They comprise about two-thirds of the ocean. This new treaty will allow parties to set up marine protected areas in the high seas. It will also regulate the use of exotic genes from high seas organisms to create profitable new products like drugs and cosmetics, so that benefits can be shared with all countries. It’s important work, with implications for both marine conservation and the U.S. economy.

“As a diplomat, my job is to be the tip of the spear for the U.S. government, and that starts with getting the entire government on the same page with consensus positions. I come up with options and make the case for what I think is best for the United States. The negotiations I have within the U.S. government are often harder than the negotiations I face at the UN.” But, Kim says, “I am committed to public service and to making the world – especially its ocean – a better place.”

And there are many rewarding moments. One of Kim’s passion projects is the annual Our Ocean conference, which Secretary of State John Kerry started in 2014 to bring together governments, industry, philanthropies, scientists, and nongovernmental organizations from around the globe to make real progress in ocean conservation.

“It’s not a typical international gathering with long speeches by heads of state and a declaration of promises to do better in the future,” Kim says. “It’s 500 high-level people invited to come with commitments for significant new actions. The only way you get to talk is if you have something big to announce.” The conference continues to be hosted each year by countries around the world and has resulted in $91.4 billion to date in tangible new commitments to protect the ocean.