Governments have a regrettable propensity to ride roughshod over laws intended to protect the environment. ClientEarth’s James Thornton and his team of lawyers compel those in power to make more responsible choices. His organisation has already taken the UK government to the Supreme Court over poor air quality in London, ushered in a ban on diesel cars in German city centres (as well as in Rome) and prevented new coal-fire power stations from being built in Poland.
We meet Thornton in the library of the Law Society in London, a place where he and his team are often found poring over legal texts and wading through case files. Though Thornton is softly spoken, there are glimpses of a granite-hard tenacity: “You have to get the public very interested in an issue like air pollution or ocean plastics and then translate that into law,” he says. “That’s the way you make change. We are proof that it can be done.”
In 2018, ClientEarth appeared in the Financial Times’ list of 50 top law firms, an accolade that Thornton considers significant given the size of the other firms on the list: “They have departments like Mergers and Acquisitions, ours are Oceans, Forests and Climate Change,” he says. “Last year we had a budget of £11m; many of these firms have 3,000 lawyers and £1bn in turnover.” Next on the agenda is tackling industrial farming in the EU and training environmental lawyers in China. Thornton’s method is always to observe what should be changed and then what can be: “We approach things systematically.”
Left to right
1. Sam Bright Lawyer, energy “Sam is in charge of all our anti-coal cases, using laws to close down coal-fired power stations.”
2. Yulia Stange Forests co-ordinator “Runs our forests programme in Africa, helping forest-dependent communities.”
3. Dr Tom West Law and policy adviser “Tom looks like a pirate but he’s our chief Brexit expert.”
4. Alice Garton Head of climate “Alice has masterminded our use of corporate law. She has just told 1,400 senior corporate executives that they have to radically change the way they do business.”
5. Stefanie Pfeil Development director “Works on the root causes of development issues.”
6. Karla Hill Director of programmes “The very first person I hired. A brilliant strategist.”
7. Brian Eno Trustee “One of the world’s great musicians – and my personal favourite. He has given us deep support. He’s a public intellectual and really gets it.”
8. Chris Duncan Communications director “Terrifically skilful with wonderful vision. Nothing has ever phased him.”
9. Anna Heslop Wildlife project leader “She has achieved her heart’s desire: to be an environmental protection lawyer.”
10. Catherine Weller Head of biodiversity programme “She’s been developing a programme on plastics.”
11. Gillian Lobo Lawyer, strategic litigation “An expert litigator who watches over all our court cases.”
12. Doug Ruley General counsel “One of the best strategic litigators – and a genuinely nice person.”
13. Beth Thoren Deputy CEO “Beth started as an engineer on oil tankers, then she had a turnaround.”
14. Maria Gugliotta Executive assistant “Between me and the world is Maria.”
15. Ugo Taddei Clean-air project leader “A brilliant lawyer. He’s running our 30 clean-air cases.”
James Thornton CEO, ClientEarth
James Thornton fell in love with nature as a boy and dreamed of being a biologist before realising that much of the natural world he wanted to study was being either killed, polluted or destroyed. He resolved that his talents would be put to better use as an environmental lawyer.
After studying at Yale and New York University, Thornton started practicing in 1979. He moved to London and noticed that the UK and EU were behind the curve when it came to holding governments to account for breaking environmental laws. So in 2007, he founded ClientEarth, a non-profit environmental law organisation.