Meet James Thornton, Environmental Law's Quiet Assassin
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Meet James Thornton, Environmental Law’s Quiet Assassin

ClientEarth's James Thornton is a man with a mission: to save our planet

With the international climate conference COP26 taking place in November this year, all eyes will be on the UK and what steps we are taking to hit Net Zero by 2050 at the latest. Should we fail in our legally bound obligations, be under no illusion that, along with the surge in temperatures, the floods, the famines, the fires and the whole- scale migration of climate refugees, the strong arm of the law will be there to throw a very large book at the government right where it hurts. One lawyer, James Thornton, will no doubt be first in line – defending his only client – Earth. Lucy Cleland meets the man with the lethal legal touch.

james thornton

Saving the Earth and, more accurately, our place on it, from his bedroom is not a situation in which Irish-American environmental lawyer James Thornton could have guessed he’d ever find himself, but that’s Covid-19 for you. Far more used to flying around the world with an ever- increasing carbon footprint (yes, he gets the irony but, trust me, he takes out far more carbon than he adds), he seems overwhelmingly delighted to find it’s possible to stay in one place and still protect the planet. That place, for lockdown, was Suffolk and ‘extremely unglamorous’ Lowestoft (his words, not mine). ‘It works amazingly well,’ he tells me, as I get comfortable in the back seat of my car with my iPhone squidged into the headrest (my own rural broadband is so ropey it doesn’t allow for extensive Zoom interviews, so I’ve driven to an area with good 4G). ‘We have 225 people at ClientEarth [the global non-profit environmental law organisation he founded in 2008], and we’ve been able to continue bringing lawsuits and working on legislation all over the world.’

I always thought law was dry, but having discovered what James has been able to do I wish I could go back 25 years and study to be an environmental lawyer. How fun it must have been suing the British government (and winning – three times) over the UK’s illegal levels of air pollution. How creatively cunning he was to buy shares in a Polish company that wanted to build ‘the last new coal-fired power station in Europe’ (the last, because ClientEarth has, over 14 years, succeeded in stopping any new coal-fired power stations being built in Europe), and then sue that company as a stakeholder for investing his money badly – not for environmental reasons but for business ones. ‘We won the case,’ James chuckles, ‘and the stock price actually went up!’

That Polish case was a game changer. It signified that the economics were now being stacked in favour of renewable energy. And where markets move, investment follows – meaning there is much to feel positive about as we tackle the huge task of ditching fossil fuels and hitting the UK target of net zero greenhouses gases by 2050 – probably the single most important goal in our fight against rising temperatures.

James, named in 2009 as one of New Statesman’s ‘ten people who could change the world’, wasn’t always the quiet legal assassin with zen calm that he is now. (He’s also an ordained Buddhist priest, a poet – his latest collection Notes from a Mountain Village was published last year – and a classically trained violinist ‘currently obsessed with Bach’s cello suites as transposed for the violin’.) Like many people who go on to do extraordinary things, his journey was rooted in anger.

‘When you really understand the state of the environmental problems of climate change, and the loss of nature, and what it will mean for our children and future generations, the first reaction is to get very angry,’ he acknowledges. The second reaction is despair (just google ‘eco-anxiety’ and you’ll get 23 million searches spewed back at you). ‘But despair is very disempowering,’ asserts James, ‘so you have to know what to do with your anger and your despair – together they don’t lead to positive solutions.’

Show us the way, James. I’m sure that applies to so many of us who feel overwhelmed by the threat of what is likely to go wrong should we fail in our mission to steady global temperature rise, protect biodiversity and prevent ecological collapse.

‘It’s not that the anger goes away,’ he explains, ‘it’ll keep popping up. But it’s important that it doesn’t remain your permanent state. If you want to get to a place to help humanity, you need to be in a healing space – where you can see solutions.’

And here, I’m guessing, being a Zen Buddhist helps. ‘It would be very difficult to do the work I do without it,’ he concedes. ‘Meditating grounds me and gets me beyond the ego being very involved. And it gives me a sense of wanting to work for something more than yourself.’

james thornton

That work has indeed been world-changing. Whether it’s taking the European Investment Bank (EIB) to court over the illegally avoided environmental scrutiny of its financing decisions (and winning) or pressuring Drax Power to scrap its plans to build what would have been Europe’s largest gas-fired plant in North Yorkshire, ClientEarth’s icy hand of the law extends far and wide – and you wouldn’t want to feel its chill down your back. Asked if he’s ever failed, James responds wryly: ‘In a few battles, never in the war.’

Going to battle obviously requires deep war chests. As a charity, fundraising is its life blood, so having a trustee like music producer Brian Eno helps. Eno introduced the band Coldplay to ClientEarth and they became patrons in 2010. Nine years later, headlines were made when Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour donated $21.5 million from the sale of his guitars at auction in New York.

With such a gargantuan task to undertake, the ever-flowing money tap is crucial and James is keen to encourage companies and individuals to take a look at the work they do, which can be so much more effective than, say, increasingly popular carbon- offsetting schemes. According to Greenpeace and Friends of The Earth, these are better than doing nothing at all but they don’t begin to scratch at the surface of the real issue: producing the emissions in the first place.

James Thornton ClientEarth

James Thornton in court

So who really shifts the dial when it comes to driving the climate change agenda globally? Who would James invite to a round-table at COP26, for instance? ‘The President of China, Xi Jinping, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission and US President Joe Biden. Then Larry Fink from BlackRock [one of the world’s pre-eminent asset management firms, who wrote to all the companies he invested in saying “sustainability was their new standard for investing”]. And, for some spice, Elon Musk.’ Boris, nota bene, you’re NFI.

But what about the UK? Where does James see his adopted homeland in all this? ‘The UK government likes to say very good things about the environment, but the follow-up is not always there. There’s this great opportunity now, after Brexit, to completely change the way we organise things and to build back greener. But what we citizens need to do is hold politicians’ feet to the fire. No politician should be allowed to drift back to what’s comfortable and old-fashioned.’

The message is clear. There is hope, there is will – and there is ClientEarth when you need to turn the screws tighter. But it’s up to each and every one of us to do our part–how we vote and where we invest our money (just like Larry Fink) can help engender the massive mindshift needed to win the most important case of all: the saving of the human race.

ClientEarth is an environmental law charity founded by James Thornton. If you want to support them and help them to continue their work, you can donate here:

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