Hot 100: James Thornton, ClientEarth

Five years ago US-born lawyer James Thornton (scroll down for video interview) set up ClientEarth, a not-for-profit environmental law organisation.


The past year saw much of Thornton’s hard work pay off, with victories both in and out of court on major environmental issues around the world.

ClientEarth now employs 60 full-time staff, with around two-thirds of its employees being lawyers. The team, led by Thornton as CEO, work around the world on effecting change in environmental laws and practices through a mixture of litigation, lobbying and targeted campaigns.

“One of our big pushes in litigation is to try and move energy producers away from coal and to more environmentally friendly ways of producing energy,” he explains.

In Poland, ClientEarth brought cases against 14 new coal-fired power stations, forcing some of them to cancel the project and raising the ire of the Polish government in the process.

“It’s a strategy of creating heightened business risk,” says Thornton. “When it works like that you see it could work again, and it begins to be a way to answer the question of how citizens can find a way to fight climate change.”

The organisation also tries to work collaboratively with businesses and government to influence new regulations and change old ones. Its work with celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on sustainable fishing has paid off, with the campaign helping to change the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy as well as influencing supermarket labelling.

Thornton’s work in leading ClientEarth is beginning to have a visible impact on this sphere of law.