A Conversation With James Thornton, Founder of ClientEarth – One of the World’s Most Ambitious Environmental Organisations

James Thornton - Client Earth

James Thornton is a remarkable individual who has dedicated his life to fighting for climate and environmental justice. As a Wall Street lawyer, he won over 80 cases to force the Reagan Administration to clean up polluted water. It was in 2007, when he moved to Europe that ClientEarth was formed with a mission to change the way environmental protections are made and enforced.  Now operating globally, ClientEarth uses advocacy, litigation and research to address the greatest challenges of our time – including nature loss, public health and climate change. In the last decade alone, ClientEarth has led an EU-wide law banning illegally harvested rainforest timber, setup the Sustainable Seafood Coalition, won numerous cases against governments for failing to tackle air pollution, and forced many nations and corporations to create sustainable change in their policy and strategy for the benefit of the climate and environment. James and his team use the most effective tool in the arsenal for change, the law. 

The New Statesman has named James as one of 10 people who could change the world. The Lawyer has picked him as one of the top 100 lawyers in the UK. He was named as one of the 1,000 most influential people in London and has twice won Leader of the Year at the Business Green Awards. The Financial Times awarded him its Special Achievement accolade at the FT Innovative Lawyers Awards.

In this exclusive interview, I spoke to James Thornton about how we can tackle one of the greatest challenges our species has ever faced, climate change.

Q:  How does the concept of justice relate to climate change?

[James Thornton]: The people who will be disproportionately harmed by climate change are those who are (in general) less advantaged economically and socially. Justice means equality of opportunity for all human beings, and that equality of opportunity is quickly reduced if you’re in Bangladesh and your home is flooded or if you’re in Nigeria and your crops fail because the rains have changed.

Climate change will also impact the cultural events of our society. By the middle of century, the temperature and humidity in parts of the world will be so high at parts of the year that the human system will not be able to cool itself, you are effectively being cooked. One of the places this will happen first, with potentially grave consequences, is the Arabian Peninsula- disrupting Hajj (especially when it hits in the middle of summer). There will be periods where, being outdoors for 5 days as part of the ceremonies, will be physically impossible.

The justice aspects of climate change have not been well reported by the newspapers, but the governments in those countries affected by climate change have been raising their voices for some time.

This also extends to human rights. We brought a case on behalf of the Torres Strait Islanders (which fall under Australia’s jurisdiction). These are very low-lying islands. Sea level rise and corresponding storm-surges are already destroying parts of the islands and they have- very literally- been watching the bones of their ancestors being washed away. We brought a human rights case on their behalf before the UN Human Rights Commission, and I think you’ll be seeing more of this kind of case from people around the world.

Q:  Can the legal system make a difference to climate change?

[James Thornton]: I started working on Client Earth around 15 years ago and I started with the law around air pollution; it looked like something that would (and should) be highly enforceable given the nature of how the laws are written. In the UK alone, 40,000 people were dying early due to air pollution each year by the government’s own measures; and you could easily extrapolate this to being more than 500,000 people a year dying across Europe, each year. Nobody was meeting the air pollution standards; the UK government wasn’t, and nor were most other European countries. The politicians had come together and taken credit for passing great laws, and got some great news coverage for it, but they weren’t complying with the law. In the UK, we started bringing cases and we went up to the Supreme Court and won an injunction. It was the first time the UK Supreme Court had ever given an environmental injunction, and it ordered the government to bring the country into compliance as soon as possible. Since then, we’ve been back to enforce this twice, and won twice. In cities and towns all across the UK- plans are now being written to bring areas into compliance using instruments such as low-emission zones. We took this same concept to Germany where a huge amount of air pollution was caused by diesel vehicles. We brought cases in Stuttgart and Munich and successfully got the courts to ban diesel engines, by injunction, in the centre of towns. The consequences were that people quickly stopped buying diesel engines in Germany, and sales went down 25% in 6 months. It sent a huge signal to car companies and led to whole new stream of innovation. Diesel particulates cause climate change- they’re extremely black and absorb solar energy.

We’ve also brought a whole series of cases to stop the building of coal fired power stations. We struck thirty in Poland, and also a number in Greece. As a result of our work, Greece has decided to stop burning coal by 2028. The biggest coal fired power station in Europe is in Poland, it’s called Bełchatów. This one power station emits more carbon each year than New Zealand and provides 20% of Poland’s entire power. Recently, a judge ordered the company to sit down with us and negotiate a date to close the plant. The judge said, ‘well, climate change is now a serious problem, not just for environmental groups but for all of us as citizens. You- the company- need to care about it, and thus you must reach a conclusion to these negotiations…

Asia is our next area of focus, there are more than 1,500 coal fired power station currently running and more than 425 planned. We’re bringing all our skills to Asia to equip Asian NGOs who want to have a clean future.

This all links back to justice; there are 350 million people in South East Asia without electricity and what an incredible win for justice if we were able to get them clean electricity and reduce climate change in the process.

Q:  What is the role of the financial sector in climate change, and climate justice?

[James Thornton]: Climate change is a real, and present, threat to the economy – and to all classes of national and private assets. If you manage other people’s money, you have a fiduciary duty to de-risk it by managing for climate change. The scale of this is huge, in the United Kingdom alone, pension funds manage about £3 trillion and we’re working on passing bills through parliament to make TCFD (Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures) standards for disclosure mandatory for pension funds. Increasingly there are also pressures to create Paris compliant business plans where you must aim to be net-zero by 2050 and halved by 2030. If you don’t meet these targets, there’s a chance that people simply will not give you money anymore- the market will be closed to you. So not taking a proactive stance on climate will mean the end of many businesses who lag behind.

Q:  How can consumer decisions play a role in climate change?

[James Thornton]: We can’t only rely on consumers making individual choices. If you switched your energy to someone who told you they are selling you 100% renewable energy, that’s great, but it doesn’t shift the energy system to renewables. You need to have energy markets that are designed to encourage investment into renewable energy.

Cars are another example. People are certainly buying more electric vehicles, but you need government to legislate. Various countries are now saying they will forbid the sale of internal combustion engines by certain dates; that will prevent you (as a consumer) from making the wrong purchasing choice from a climate perspective.

I’m waiting for the point where in general people are motivated ethically and emotionally. Many people already are- young and old- and are making positive choices to cycle rather than drive, to eat less meat… but we need that kind of change at scale. This will start to intersect with some massive areas of government. Buying organic is wonderful, but you still have EUR60 billion a year going into industrial agriculture through subsidies that kill soil and release thousands of tonnes of toxic chemicals into our water. These are changes which will require government action at the highest level, consumer action alone will not get us there. If you or I buy an organic veggie-burger, that’s great, but we’re swimming against billions in subsidies.

Q:  What is the relationship between climate justice, aid and development?

[James Thornton]: At the 2021 global climate meeting, one of the big arguments will be how much the developed nations are willing to contribute to the developing nations in order to allow them to have the resources they need in order to make climate transitions. The West and developed countries have never actually been generous enough.

There are other interesting aspects to development too. In East Africa for example, there are countries which haven’t yet gone all the way into fossil fuels- there is a real opportunity for them to skip past expensive fossil fuel infrastructure like they skipped over old generation telephony straight to high-speed mobile broadband.  In Kenya, around 90% of the electricity is from renewables, that’s remarkable, and other countries can do the same by creating markets and infrastructure that make it attractive to invest in renewables first.

In China, we have been working closely with the Chinese Supreme Court prosecutors and administrative environment. It’s remarkable how fast they are moving to clean-up the environment and to become good environmental activists. They had good laws, but those laws weren’t being enforced so we helped to write a law that would allow Chinese NGOs to sue companies, including those owned by the state. We also trained a group of 3000 court judges in China who were eager to enforce environmental laws. Then we trained prosecutors who said that for the first time they were able to sue government on behalf of people and the environment. In the last two years, these prosecutors have initiated over 100,000 cases- they do things in a big way- and want to transform the landscape such that companies know they will get hammered if they don’t comply with the laws and so they internalise the costs of compliance.

Q: Do we need stronger trans-national laws to enforce against climate transgression?

[James Thornton]: For many years there has been discussion around how we could create an international court, under the auspices of the UN for example, and a crime of ecocide which is parallel to the crime of genocide. This is hugely interesting but at the same time there is so much that can be done through existing laws, and those that we can write. Countries can revise their laws, and governments can enact, implement and enforce legislation- there’s a tremendous amount that can be done this way and while I think it’s important to have an international court that is geared around the potential crime of ecocide, we must remember that the fact that genocide is a crime has not stopped genocides from happening.

It’s interesting how countries are doing this. President Xi in China has spoken of reaching carbon neutrality by 2060 and I have no doubt they will achieve this. The Chinese tend to under-promise and over-perform, they don’t want to lose face. In the West, it’s the opposite. Politicians will say anything and not care about it- they’ll be out of office by the time they would be held to account.

Rather than thinking we need to take governments to global courts; our first port of call is to say how can we understand the complexities of that system? and they are complex… how can we work within it to get action to happen as quickly as possible.

Q:  What created your reverence for the environment?

[James Thornton]: I fell in love with the environment as a kid. Most kids who have any contact with the natural world have a beautiful affinity for it. You can watch a little girl crawl around looking at a slug or picking up a beetle. They love it! I never lost that love.

As an adult, one of the tools I always use is meditation practice. For me this means having a spiritual life in connection with an understanding of the global ecosystem such that we are all united rather than being separate. It’s the Buddhist perception of us all being- essentially- one entity, and from that it’s very easy to move to an appreciation of the natural world as what takes care of us, is a part of us, and we a part of it.

Q: What would be your advice to those campaigning to change environmental law?

[James Thornton]: Too often, we find governments who- even when well-intentioned and wanting to do the right thing- can’t quite figure out how. They may not have the right people, the time, or are being pressed politically. Sometimes, all we need to do is show up with the right skills, and maybe a new law or regulation that they couldn’t do themselves, we give it to them, they use it, take the credit and we never put our name on it. Importantly though, enforcing the rules of the game is critical. You can only really do that if you learn to. Law is a complicated clockwork mechanism, and you need to learn to be the clock maker.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.