James Thornton: The Law Can Help Us “Succeed in Saving Civilization”

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Nov 16, 2018
by Nicole Reisinger
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James Thornton: The Law Can Help Us “Succeed in Saving Civilization”

Founder of ClientEarth delivers Eighth Lloyd N. Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law and explains how to “use the power of the law to protect people and the planet” James Thornton takes questions after delivering the Eighth Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law. Credit: Salzburg Global Seminar/Stephanie Natoli

Next month, December 2018, national governments and other parties will gather in Poland, marking three years since the landmark Paris Agreement was signed and striving to adopt guidelines for the global climate accord to “ensure the true potential of the Paris Agreement can be unleashed.” 

Just weeks ahead of this new round of negotiations, guests gathered in Washington, DC for the Eighth Annual Lloyd N. Cutler Lecture on the Rule of Law, where environmental lawyer and social entrepreneur, James Thornton made the case for how the law – at all levels, municipal, national and international – can be used to better protect our planet.

Thornton’s cautionary yet hopeful lecture was titled “When the Earth is your Client: Taking the Law into our own Hands” and was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Clare Shine, former environmental lawyer and current Salzburg Global Vice President and Chief Program Officer. Tom Mansbach, Chair of the Cutler Center for the Rule of Law at Salzburg Global Seminar, offered the opening remarks.

“Many years ago I wondered if we were on a path to end life on the planet. Now we know life on the planet will go on, but it may be a planet unfit for us,” warned Thornton, the founder and CEO of ClientEarth, Europe’s first public interest environmental law organization. 

A study released in October by the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, warned that action must be taken within the next 12 years to stunt the rising global temperature. Any increase beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius would significantly worsen the risks for hundreds of millions of people. “Crossing that threshold leads to a tipping point,” warned Thornton.  

The solution is to build an “Ecological Civilization,” Thornton claimed. The Paris Agreement is a piece of that new architecture. It serves as a global framework for emissions reduction and aims to hold countries accountable to come up with plants to reduce emissions. Country delegations will convene at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP24) in Katowice, Poland next month for follow-up talks to establish a rule book to encourage the needed reductions. So far, only Morocco and The Gambia have come up with plans. 

Thornton attributes the conception of an Ecological Civilization to the Chinese. With help from ClientEarth, Thornton’s non-profit environmental law firm, the country is working to reconceive economic policies, reform the legal system, and redesign its agricultural and industrial policies. One of China’s innovations is to allow citizen groups to bring cases against polluting companies to help improve compliance. Another reform, Thornton said, “is to create a series of environment courts, from regional to the Supreme Court level, to handle environment cases.” In these courts, with the help of ClientEarth, China trains judges and prosecutors in climate litigation to bring and decide cases.

Thornton discussed the many ways citizens can use the law to protect the Earth and its environment, from holding companies and governments accountable by taking them to court to building the capacity of others to use the law. Whether it be disrupting complacency in the UK legal system or uprooting incumbents in the Polish, German and Australian coal mining industry, Thornton finds hope in empowering people through the law to challenge and redesign the system.
 
Thornton concluded his lecture by suggesting that “if we hold governments to account, move aside the incumbents, empower people everywhere to use the law to open the future, we can indeed succeed in saving civilization.”

In the Q&A section of the evening, Clare Shine and James Thornton explored the paradox that the science, economics and citizen demand are incresingly aligned, compared to the sluggishness of governments’ responses to climate change. “Climate change is a planetary issue and responibility. It’s existential,” Shine said. The conversation, which also included questions from the audience, touched upon the intersection of biodiversity and climate change, creating compelling and enforceable environmental policy, and what can be done to accelerate practical responses to the findings of climate change science. 

The evening concluded with closing remarks delivered by Stephen Salyer, President of the Salzburg Global Seminar. 


This lecture was held by Salzburg Global Seminar on Wednesday, November 14 at the Phillips Collection, under the auspices of the Lloyd N. Cutler Center for the Rule of Law. The lecture series was started by Salzburg Global Seminar in 2009 to honor the life and work of Lloyd N. Cutler, former White House Counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton and long-time Chair of Salzburg Global’s Board of Directors.