President, Natural Resources Defense Council
Interview Year: 2012
When John Adams was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, President Obama quoted Rolling Stone magazine saying that if the planet has a lawyer, it’s John Adams. For his service as co-founder and leader of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for 35 years, most environmental lawyers would say he deserved it. Adams grew up on a farm with nature all around him and married a woman from the Smoky Mountains whose father was a forester. With this background, he was receptive to making the move from the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York to join with a group of young lawyers from Yale to secure funding from the Ford foundation and start up NRDC.
Under his leadership, the organization set out to help get strong environmental laws and implement regulations on the books. NRDC sued EPA and other government agencies for inaction or inadequate regulatory actions and also took aim at major polluters that state or federal enforcers were reluctant to take on. Together with pioneer Frances Beinecke, Adams guided NRDC through additions to its agenda, building staff capacity in science and economics as well as law, promoting collaboration among environmental advocacy groups, and increasing NRDC’s presence and impact on climate and ocean pollution problems. As a longtime teacher of environmental law at New York University Law School and mentor to many staff members, he has influenced scores of young lawyers and future leaders in the profession. He and his wife Patricia managed to find time to write a history of NRDC and the environmental movement entitled, A Force for Nature.
Adams has called on the President who presented his medal to defend strong environmental policies against the perennial claim that they harm the economy. Adams sees new technology organizations coming to the fore and willing to challenge the fossil fuel companies on the shape of the energy industry. There, he believes, lies the hope for a very positive future.