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These Lawyers are Winning the Case for the Planet

One of the most important environmental protection tools available to us today is the law. Lawyers who dedicate their training and talent to keeping water clean and land unpillaged, and holding corporations and governments responsible, can be powerful changemakers for a healthy world. Led by James Thornton, ClientEarth is a team of activist lawyers who work with the values of possibility, boldness, creativity, adaptability, transparency and strategy to protect Nature for the sake of all. We spoke with Mr. Thornton about meditation, love for Nature, and the future of the world.

Parvati Magazine: While you were at Yale you chose law over biology in order to effect change, as you felt that biology would disappear without a major shift in social action. What made you feel so connected with nature and become such a fierce champion for it at a young age?

James Thornton: My experience of the natural world was intimate from the time I was very young. I would watch ants for hours as a small child, and collect bees, grasshoppers, praying mantises. When I was around eleven years old I met a wonderful entomologist in New York called Alice Gray. She loved young people and would take us on field trips to collect insects. She became a real mentor and teacher for me. Meantime, I really fell in love with spiders and with birds. That has never changed.

PMAG: Your legal actions are often unpopular with governments and corporations. How does your Buddhism and meditation practice inform how you deal with that?

JT: One Zen master said that meditation makes everyone your friend. So I see what is best in people and speak to that, when dealing with governments or negotiating cases. When it comes to my own stress, and running a global environmental group of lawyers fighting for people and planet can be stressful, meditation helps a lot. It not only reduces stress, it lets you connect to the deep current of life directly, and sense what it is you are working for. In the last couple of years, lawyers in my offices have started meditating, and I am really interested to see where this takes us, since meditation also opens creative solutions to problems. After all, it is creative, positive solutions that we are always looking for.

PMAG: You have been working in China to inform judges and trial lawyers on the nuances of effective environmental law.

JT: China have really woken up to how bad their pollution problems are. They have, in my experience, agreed from the top of government to the bottom to clean up. This goes for water, air and soil pollution. It also goes for greenhouse gases, since they see that climate change is real and that they have to help stop it. There are no climate change deniers running China.

We’ve been welcomed in to help their highest court, the Supreme People’s Court, train judges in environmental decision making. We’ve also been invited to train government prosecutors in how to bring cases against not only polluters but also the government, when a ministry fails to fulfil a duty it has about the environment. They have also passed a law that lets Chinese environmental groups bring cases against polluting companies, including ones owned by the state. And the groups are bringing these cases and winning them.

China also has officially adopted a powerful vision, which they call Ecological Civilization. They say if we are to survive we need to evolve into an ecological civilization, which is truly sustainable within ecological limits. They have hundreds of their top intellectuals studying how they need to evolve to deliver an ecological civilization. It is far ahead of any efforts in the West, and very inspiring.

PMAG: I understand that you spoke at COP21 to global financiers about the volatility of investment in the face of climate change, and their responsibility to shareholders to consider the welfare of our environment. Two years later, are you noticing a difference?

JT: There is a big shift happening in how investors understand the risk of climate change. We have been saying that it is now clear that climate risk is also financial risk, for all classes of assets, because the future effects of climate change are broadly clear.

There is a great deal of movement in the right direction in the last couple of years. We still need governments to do much more than they are doing, but professional investors are looking to align with the future.

An American lawyer, James Thornton founded ClientEarth—Europe’s first public interest environmental law organisation—in 2007. Now operating globally with 120 staff, it addresses the greatest challenges of our time, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and toxic chemicals.