The lawyer saving the planet


The environmental lawyer on Buddhism, birdwatching and saving the planet
James Thornton, CEO of ClientEarth (www.clientearth.org), was recently part of a panel of speakers—which included Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellion—at the Creating the Future conference.

This article first appeared in Country Life on 30th October 2019.

‘Our ultimate objective is to save civilisation’

As the founder of Client-Earth, James Thornton is a lawyer offering hope. There may be some people, suspicious of the law, to whom this may seem like an oxymoron. However, Mr Thornton is an unusual lawyer, with an extra-ordinary brief he takes from the earth itself. On its behalf, he wants to stop climate change, save wildlife, clean up the oceans and purify the air. He’ll do this—and more—to help all of us, using legal means. Impossible? Think again. ‘So far,’ says Mr Thornton in his habitually soft, lightly American voice, ‘everything we’ve tried has been successful.’

Air pollution

Look at what happened to air pollution in Britain. ‘Forty thousand people were dying early from it every year. There was a clear law, to which the UK Parliament had signed up. But the Government had not brought air into compliance.’ The deadline to do so was 2010. A polite solicitor’s letter elicited the response that the Government would give no thought to the issue until at least 2025.

‘So we went to court on behalf of all breathers of air. The supreme court gave us an injunction; we have since been back to court twice. Slowly, plans are being written—too slowly, but they are being written.’ This has not only been achieved by victory in the courts. ‘Parents all over the country are demanding clean air.’ Legal action works best when supported by a popular campaign.

Who to target?

Targets are selected for maximum impact. ‘I asked climate scientists: “If I could accomplish one thing in Europe, what should that be?” They said: “Try to prevent the building of any more coal-fired powerplants.” We stopped 30 from being constructed in Poland, but the Polish government was determined to do one more. So we commissioned some independent financial analysis that concluded it was a bad financial decision—green energy would have been cheaper. We bought shares in the company building the powerplant and complained at the shareholders’ meeting. They went ahead anyway, so, as shareholders, we sued the officers and directors. We won—and the day afterwards the share price rose 4.5%, because the market decided this was the best outcome.’ In Germany, which is also heavily reliant on coal, the Bavarian environment minister is facing a jail sentence for contempt of court for not acting against polluters.

What can be done?

So cheer up. The apocalyptic rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion need not send us into quite such a spiral of depression. Governments may be too dysfunctional to act, but ordinary citizens—through the 100 mostly young lawyers of ClientEarth—can force them to face their responsibilities. Vested interests that are obstacles to progress can be ‘moved out of the road’. Big companies are resistant to change—and, often, they’re close to governments.

‘Today, it’s possible to align yourself with smart capital. The UK has depleted its biodiversity, but it can be brought back. What we need is a revolution in farming that’s healthy for land and people, and more efficient as well.’

Leaving the well-intentioned, but poorly conceived, Common Agricultural Policy will free British farmers to adopt the new science and Defra to rewrite the rules. Even the prospect of eating less meat need not be alarming if you’ve bitten into an Impossible Burger, grown from yeast using the protein found in blood, so the juices run red. ‘There are solutions to all these problems—30 years ago, there weren’t,’ he notes.

The rise of ClientEarth

Now, ClientEarth has offices not only around Europe, but also in Australia, several African countries and Beijing. Beijing? Yes, says Mr Thornton. ‘The Chinese government on its own made a decision some years ago to clean up the environment as soon as possible. Last year, it built as much renewable energy as the rest of the world put together. The cost of solar power has fallen precipitously as a result. Admittedly, it’s difficult to influence Russia, where there’s no rule of law and a hostile government.’

The US, once a leader on environmental standards, recently started to go backwards but ‘16 individual states have said they will follow the Paris climate agreement’. Why? ‘Out of enlightened self-interest. I’m entirely a fan of enlightened self-interest.’

The environmental lawyer, Buddhist and father

Now in his mid sixties, Mr Thornton grew up in New York. His father was a law professor; at dinner, questions were posed in the Socratic manner to provoke debate. The four ‘very competitive’ brothers all became lawyers, although Mr Thornton, a keen birdwatcher and entomologist, who haunted New York’s American Museum of Natural History, thought at first of becoming a botanist. Then he realised the law could be an important tool in protecting the things he loved.

There was, as yet, no environmental course offered by the law faculty, but, when he was student editor-in-chief of a scholarly law journal, one of his fellow editors told him about the not-for-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): ‘It uses laws to protect the environment. The people are brilliant and they’re eccentric and I think you’d fit right in.’ Mr Thornton joined them, in due course opening an NRDC office in Los Angeles. It was there he studied Zen Buddhism—he’s now an ordained Buddhist priest.

Thirteen years ago, Mr Thornton moved to England, with the object of taking ‘the intellectual DNA into Europe, where nobody used law in this way’. The move was also personal. His now husband, the academic and novelist Martin Goodman, did not have a visa to live permanently in the US, so Mr Thornton crossed the Atlantic instead, initially settling in Bedfordshire, near the RSPB headquarters at Sandy. Now, he and Mr Goodman live in the East End of London and have a flat in Lowestoft, convenient for the nature reserve at Minsmere.

Buddhist he may be, but Mr Thornton cannot afford to detach himself entirely from the world of money. ClientEarth depends on donations. Recently, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd gave it everything raised at Christie’s from the sale of his 217 guitars. That will help the ultimate objective, which is ‘to save civilisation. That’s what Sir David Attenborough is now talking about. It has entered the public domain’. What does that offer if not hope?


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As with last year, Creating the Future explored some of the world’s most challenging and exciting issues. You can access video footage of each of our speaker's talks using the link below.


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