Roaming the swamplands around his home in New York State as a child, James Thornton knew he had a passion. He loved the insects, the vegetation and most of all, the birds. But not even in his wildest flights of fancy could he have predicted that his love of nature would take him to a point where in 2009 the New Statesman cited him as one of the top ten people who could change the world.
Talking to Sublime was his last appointment before the Christmas holidays, and enthusiasm for his work radiates warmly in his voice. You can almost hear him smile: ‘It seems an appropriate way to finish before the break – sharing our message with like-minded people.’
Growing up in the US, James’s young mind was exposed to many external stimuli. His father was a professor of law, and his home was surrounded by open land that teemed with wildlife. By the age of ten, James had fallen head over heels in love with flora and fauna, an interest that was to be nurtured by scientist Alice Gray, who guided his journey towards a deeper understanding of the natural world.
With philosophy also close to his heart, the subject formed his first venture into academic study. Law school followed close behind. James thinks back: ‘I knew I wanted to serve the world, but had no idea how. Environmental law wasn’t a big deal back then, and it wasn’t until my secondment that I discovered my direction.’
As fate would have it, James secured an apprenticeship with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an eccentric, non-profit activist law firm, fighting for human rights and the protection of nature. He had found his life path.
After qualifying, James set up the Citizens’ Enforcement Project at NRDC in New York, going on to win, spectacularly, 80 federal lawsuits against private corporations to enforce the Clean Water Act during the Reagan era. It was a sign of things to come for James – using the law to shame governments and private business into doing the right thing.
To this day, James maintains close ties with the NRDC, which works exclusively on US issues. However, with ClientEarth, James has brought this much-needed approach to European shores where, until recently, there were no pro bono law firms working in the field of environmental law.
It might come as a surprise that legislation already exists that is capable of solving many of the planet’s environmental problems – legislation that is not being properly enforced. With his early success propelling him into the spotlight, James is no stranger to harnessing the power of celebrity to reach his goals. He has the support of many famous people – Brian Eno and a member of Coldplay are trustees – and he describes talking to Annie Lennox at an event, who said: ‘Oh, I get it – it all comes down to legislation in the end!’
But how is it that the US is so far ahead in this area of law enforcement? James takes a moment: ‘With the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, the structures were already in place for the mindset of taking legal representation for activist causes. It was just a matter of applying these principles to environmental issues.’
In Europe there are many activist movements, but as James points out: ‘These groups tend to be based on cultural values and act through campaigning. They are not really represented by lawyers, and do not use the legal system to their advantage.’ It was to fill this niche of real and urgent need that James set up his UK-based, non-profit law firm ClientEarth in 2008.
So is it a fight, good against evil? ‘There are good people in the European legislative system,’ says James. ‘What matters is finding them, building relationships and combining these connections with the power of the law to enforce policies that may be lying dormant in the labyrinth of legislation. If an appropriate law doesn’t exist, the challenge becomes to use the tools of democracy to create it.’
‘Political will is, and always will be, the main driving force behind which policies are enforced.’ James points out how European law is shaped in such a way that only governments and corporations can bring a case to the European Court of Justice. Europeans might poke fun at how trigger-happy Americans are with lawsuits, but turning the tables and looking at the European system is enough to send a chill down your spine.
Lobbying by moneyed interests aside, what drives political will? As members of a democratic system, ultimately, you and I do. But only if we make demands of the people we elect. James sums this up with Margaret Mead’s timeless quote: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
‘At ClientEarth, we look for a clear solution to whatever problem we identify with our clients.’ ClientEarth’s Fisheries Campaign is a great example of this: ‘Our solutions are based on science, are realistic and use the law to create and enforce appropriate policies. We aim for positive change rather than focus on protest,’ James says.
ClientEarth is blossoming, with sister organisations in Poland, France and Brussels. James is proud of his team, describing it as a hot pot of smart young people seasoned with a sprinkling of senior staff.
Working with online petition organisations such as Avaaz and 38 Degrees is also firmly on ClientEarth’s agenda. Taking the momentum of people power created through web campaigns and applying dedicated legal action, generates a potent formula – one James hopes can be a force for change beyond our imagining.
Setting aside realistic barriers and taking a moment to dream, what would his ideal system of governance for the environment look like? James muses that no one has asked him that question before. The answer does not take long to come to him: he imagines a two-tier model with a Global Environmental Agency at the top, setting environmental industrial standards for companies. The second tier would be a Global Environmental Court with the authority to enforce these standards, where civil society as well as governments and corporations could bring cases.
Focusing back onto reality, James says: ‘Right now, the biggest international environmental challenge is how we manage to help the developing world improve its living standards without pushing the planet beyond its limits.’ He reflects: ‘There is much to be done – vast amounts. And the resources are limited in comparison to the scale of the problem.’
So where do we start? ‘With believing that change is possible,’ James concludes. ‘And that change starts with information.’
To find out more, join ClientEarth online and explore how you can help influence change.