We had the pleasure of interviewing our 2018 ‘Outstanding Leadership’ award winner, James Thornton, founding CEO of Client Earth. Client Earth is an international NGO, with 150 employees operating from 20 countries, that uses the law to protect the environment by ensuring environmental legislation is enforced. As part of their work they bring governments’ and companies to court so that we can all live in a world with clean air and a healthy environment.
The New Statesman described James as one of the 10 people who could change the world. In our interview, we took a deep dive into what drove him to establish Client Earth and an insight into the valuable work that the organization does to protect the natural environment around the world.
How would you define your life’s mission and what drives you?
I’m dedicated to defending the Earth and all who live upon her. My work is in service to life. If you study the science, walk the fields and forests, you know the natural balance is off. Your psyche responds. This recognition changes how you order your priorities. You also feel it physically when you walk the street and your lungs burn from polluted air.
If you’re awake, you know living systems are in trouble. Nature in its richness has a right to thrive and endure. It has over three billion years of wisdom to share. Our civilization will live well only if we learn to harmonise with the natural world, and fulfil our ambitions within nature’s complex, delicate, resilient rules. We must protect nature as we protect our own eyes, as the president of China recently put it.
What experiences in life have inspired you?
I fell in love with the natural world as a child, as many children do. I never forgot. Nature has always been my teacher.
I studied law to gain a set of instruments to protect life. Law provides powerful tools for regulating our behaviour, and a domain in which our gradual enlightenment about our responsibilities to the rest of life can be investigated and agreed. When I’m in nature, visiting my teacher, I’m also meeting with my client.
If you are a lawyer with the Earth as your client, how does your client speak to you? In what grammar does it state its needs? The answer is clear—it speaks through science. If we study the science we can capture it in policy, translate the policy into law, then implement and enforce it.
So love of nature, the tools of law, studying science, and one more dimension of fundamental importance for me—Zen.
Zen gave me the practice of understanding life intimately. My own life and that of others. For a long time I was angry about how people were treating the natural world. Then one day in a Zen retreat I realized that no matter what we did, life would go on. We could take many species down with us, but life itself would go on.
The question was whether people would go on. At that moment, I felt compassion toward everyone. In Buddhism we take a vow to save all sentient beings. My work is to save all sentient beings in a literal kind of way, trying to save nature, which now, for me, includes everyone. It’s not always easy, when you are in the midst of battle, to live this compassion. But it is fundamental.
What was your proudest moment in your career?
Bringing the strategic use of law to the European environmental community has been very satisfying. Law wasn’t used in a systematic and strategic way for environmental protection in Europe before ClientEarth. Now it is a key element.
It has also been gratifying building a team of around 150 people from 20 countries, working together from offices in London, Brussels, Berlin, Warsaw, Beijing, New York, with presences as well in Spain and five African countries. We’ve gone global in a way that, for non-profit environmental lawyers, is unique.
It was a welcome surprise when the Financial Times named us one of the top 50 law firms in Europe, even though we are a charity, and the others are for profit institutions, some of them with thousands of lawyers. So putting together a team with that quality, in a charity, all dedicated to the Earth, feels right.
While I am on the subject of the team, perhaps the most satisfying thing of all is that I have shared a way of thinking about the use of law with this group. And they have gone off in all directions and developed swathes of original thinking. They look at problems fearlessly and find pragmatic solutions. Most of what we do, despite its novelty, works. It brings change in the world. And much of what the team creates is new to me as well. Watching them create new solutions, that is deep satisfaction.
In terms of achievements of ClientEarth, let me mention an illustrative set.
We have brought a series of air quality cases across Europe, which help address the fact that 400,000 people in Europe die early every year in connection with air pollution. We’ve brought cases in 10 countries that will ensure the air is cleaned up in more than 120 cities. The problem is largely diesel cars in Western Europe, and our cases are moving the market away from diesel.
We’re also using litigation against global warming. We’ve stopped a new generation of coal fired power stations in Poland and the UK, and we are now turning to litigation to close existing coal plants. This and our policy work will move the economy towards clean energy.
We’ve protected the last primeval mixed forest in Europe from being illegally cut down.
We helped rewrite the fisheries law of Europe so that fish stocks have a chance to recover, and survive into the future.
In Africa, we’re helping forest-dependent communities have a say in how forests are used, and working to stop illegal harvesting of timber.
I just returned from 10 days in China. China has undergone a sea change when it comes to protecting the environment. They raised the country from poverty over the last forty years, but badly damaged the environment in doing so. Now they intend to build an ‘ecological civilization’ based on restoring and harmonising with the natural world. We’ve been invited into help their Supreme Court tune the legal system to deliver a clean environment. So we have been, among other things, training judges and prosecutors. This last week we trained over 300 judges from their new environment courts, working with their Supreme Court. As trainers, we brought in supreme court judges from 6 countries around the world. We also trained around 100 prosecutors. The prosecutors, since we started training them, have sent 23,000 notice letters, and brought 1,000 cases to court. They are serious, and it is really exciting to help them.
What would you say defines good leadership in the business world of today?
Good leadership in the business world today means lifting your eyes from short term profits to what is good for the wider community.
It means understanding the risk of climate change for your business, and the risk your business poses to the environment. It needs you to get ahead of regulation, design a business plan that lets you contribute to the Paris Agreement goals, and advocate that governments and other businesses do the same.
What are the challenges you face and how do you address them?
The needs are boundless, the physical limits all too real. I try to focus my energies where I think they will have the most impact. Now I’m working to make sure that ClientEarth is resilient and does not rely on me personally, but will survive and thrive beyond me.
For restoration, the surprizing discontinuities in creation and nature. For me this means walking in the natural world, playing the violin, writing poetry, bird watching, meditation.
What advice would you offer to tomorrow’s leaders?
Discover your purpose. Go deep, challenge yourself, find purpose. Then learn to articulate it to yourself and others. If you work from a humane purpose you create a space in which others can align, open themselves, and create something meaningful together.
Interesting in entering the Global Good Awards in 2019?
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