The planet is in the grip of a climate crisis, and COP26 maybe the most important meeting that will happen for the planet in our lifetime. In the first of our ClientEarth Conversation Series, postgraduate research student David McKeown talks to James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth and an Honorary Professor of Law, about the positive role law graduates can play in creating the frameworks needed to address the diverse challenges of climate change.
David: Law can unquestionably play an important role in environmental activism. But what would your message be to students who are aspiring to engage with these sorts of environmental issues through law?
James: Keep going! What has been the case is that law has taken a deeper and deeper role in protecting the environment since the beginning, and only through creating systems of rules that are understandable, participatory, and that are agreeable to the regulated communities and to the affected parties, can you wind up protecting and protecting nature and the climate. So I think of law as a system of rules that is agreed at any one point – it’s like a photograph of what does a particular society believe is important, you know?
And that’s what the law shows, as we go forward and as we’re creating greater regulation to protect oceans, to protect the climate, all of these things are developing and developing quite quickly.
‘There is more law to make, so we need more good environmental lawyers. And then there’s more law to enforce, so we need more good environmental lawyers. People who really understand environmental law are going to take, I think, a more and more central place in society as it goes forward, because these things aren’t easy to do.”
Having a system of rules that regulates human interaction with the extreme complexity of nature in a way that becomes harmless, is what we’re looking for. That’s not an easy thing to conceive, to put in place or to enforce.
The reason we used the name ClientEarth is we like to think of the earth as the client and everybody who lives on it as the client. And if you’re a lawyer, you have to talk to a client. So how do you talk to a client if you’re an environmental lawyer? It’s through science.
Science tells you what the earth needs, what these systems need – and then because that understanding is deepening and changing all the time, environmental law and regulations will always be constantly evolving. So it’s a living system, unlike many areas of law.
A competition lawyer friend of mine said, ‘what I do is I just fight for one big company against another big company to move money from one box to another box. Who cares? I didn’t do anything good for the world, really.’ And he said, ‘what you do is you’re trying to create a whole system of rules and enforce existing rules that allow society to move forward in its relationship with the earth’, so it’s always evolving.
It’ll never be a boring, formal, fixed system and that’s what I like about it. It’s one of the few areas of law that is itself a living system and it has to be. The lawyers who are doing it are the ones who will be making it.
One of the cool things about working in ClientEarth is that all of the lawyers working there are doing things that have never been done before. That’s not normal in any kind of profession, even if you’re a surgeon and certainly not among lawyers, so most of what you’re doing when you’re working in this space is at the cutting edge – completely new.
And when you’re doing it, if you’re successful, you will personally help save civilization, because that’s what we’re working on now.
With all the problems, with civilization potentially in danger – these rules and these understandings are what give the possibility for us to save the future for our descendants.
So is environmental law important? Wow – it’s really important.
The other thing that we’ve been doing, which is very cool, is bringing other areas of law into the service of the environment. So this is another thing to consider while you’re studying. About five years ago, we said if you’re going to save the environment, you have to move the money in the right direction. You have to move trillions of dollars away from investment in fossil fuels, coal, oil, gas, all that. You have to move it all to renewable energy, for example.
Well, how do you do that? When we say environmental law on its own it isn’t enough, because it regulates bad behaviour, but it doesn’t go to the heart of the money and the decisions about where money go, and the responsibilities of how to spend money in the right way.
So we said, OK, let’s become experts in company law, in securities law and banking law, in the law of fiduciary duty, pensions and insurance law. We brought in colleagues who are experts in all those things, and we said, OK, this is all the law that has to do with decisions about money.
How do we use the obligations that are already in those legal arenas to change behaviour so that it improves for the environment?
And that’s been a really interesting puzzle. How do you look at securities law as if it were environmental law? How do you look at banking law as if it were environmental law? We’ve been doing very cool things – it’s very dynamic.
When you think of working in an environment we look at the whole world and we say, how do we use all of that? How do we use all of those tools to improve human beings interaction with the planet and make it harmless and make it true?
David: Sometimes the law can seem quite a dry or stodgy subject, but actually it’s incredibly creative when it’s directed at meaningful problems like climate change and you ask yourself, what kind of methodology or approach are we going to try and go down here?
The interdisciplinarity between law and different perspectives on law – is really interesting and it’s great to hear what you’re doing that Client Earth. I know that in the Law School, there’s been collaborations between environmental lawyers and employment lawyers, and I think that is a pattern you see manifesting in different places.
It’s so encouraging because it seems to suggest that there’s a breaking down of this old-fashioned conception of what nature and the environment might be. A movement towards something that is more akin to our own experiences, and hopefully, that will produce some encouraging results.
To have someone in the Law School that is so heavily involved with climate activism is really important, because I think that a lot of the ideas that we have, need to be directed towards praxis, because the urgency of what we’re looking at as well is something that is irrespective of what line of environmental law you’re engaged in.
It’s always important to bring it back to praxis and think about how we can make actual progress and change in this area. I think Bristol Law School is very fortunate to have someone like you who’s been successfully doing that for many, many years now, to speak with students and hopefully encourage them to study environmental law.
James: You’re right, praxis is what it’s all about. It’s what we do, and ideology has no place it – it’s about what you can actually do. And when you get the sense that you can do something, it generates enormous hope in yourself and in others.
There was a study last week that 70 percent of young people are having anxiety about climate change. Very understandable – but for me, how you get beyond that anxiety is to say, ah, there is something I can do about it.
For people studying law, there is an immense amount that they can do about it. It’s really self-empowering, hope-giving activity that you can share with others.
It is truly a great honour to have been made Honorary Professor at Bristol, because I’ve always admired the Law School and the work that gets done there and also its students who come out of it.
I’ve always loved working with students and love the opportunity students have of thinking about things from square one. Imagining what would the law have to look like if we were really going to save the planet and if we’re really going to save civilization.
If you go into it that way, you will see things in a different way. That’s an amazing opportunity – and an amazing opportunity for me to be an Honorary Professor. It’s a big deal!
Find out more about our ClientEarth Conversation Series online where you can also book your place on the Environment and Energy Law Society roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the series with fellow staff and students.