James Thornton
Ashoka Fellow since 2013   |   United Kingdom

James Thornton

Working at the intersection of Europe’s entrenched environmental challenges, layers of government institutions, and country-specific agendas, James Thornton is using a legal approach to systematically…
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This description of James Thornton's work was prepared when James Thornton was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2013.


Working at the intersection of Europe’s entrenched environmental challenges, layers of government institutions, and country-specific agendas, James Thornton is using a legal approach to systematically defend an environmental agenda across Europe for the first time. James is laying the groundwork for a more engaged and effective citizen sector, demonstrating the key role it has to play to foster real cross-country collaboration and sustainability for future generations.

The New Idea

James is placing the environment at the forefront of the public agenda at the pan-European level, using the power of the law to level the playing field between corporate and public interests. He is leveraging the fact that environmental law is uniquely concentrated at the European Union level, which can pass legally-binding legislation for all its 27 member states, as a way to promote cross-country collaboration on environmental issues. Recognising the limits of campaigning, James set up ClientEarth in 2007 to introduce a small but powerful group of legal experts, acting for the public interest across Europe for the first time. ClientEarth uses an expert understanding of the law’s power and limitations to design effective, implementable, and enforceable new solutions. James has carefully positioned ClientEarth as politically-neutral so that parliamentarians and citizen organizations (COs) alike can acquire the quality legal advice and ready-to-use legislative text they need in order to be effective. Using a thorough understanding of Europe’s complex interlinking systems, James then tracks policies from their conception through to their implementation and enforcement on the ground. ClientEarth’s continent-wide strategy targets every key lever, including working at the national level for wider systemic impact. James is therefore correcting a key failing of Europe’s environmental legislation system by holding all the major stakeholders to account, from government departments to corporations to the EU itself.

James believes that in addition to corporations and governments, COs and citizens have a pivotal role to play in upholding social justice and changing the system in order that the environment is taken into account. He launched the EU Aarhus Centre to train, advise and influence COs and citizen groups, reframing the way they perceive and make use of the law across Europe. James is also opening up EU institutions to be transparent and follow their own rules on public access to information. Furthermore, he is removing the existing barriers for access to justice through the courts. ClientEarth aims to ensure that any citizen or group can have a legal standing at reasonable cost to represent the public interest for the environment themselves, thereby scaling the potential impact of James’s idea across the entire EU system. James is proving that a public interest law approach is a powerful integrating force to cut across the diverse social and political landscapes of Europe, shifting the entrenched structures and mindsets across this continent.

The Problem

Within the EU, the system for creating and implementing environmental policy is flawed, due to huge imbalances of power. On the one hand, corporate interests are represented with over 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels—an industry backed by billions of Euros. Their intent is to push for weak environmental policies that put commercial interests first. On the other hand, environmental plans for long-term sustainability are represented by just 150 environmental lobbyists. Caught in the middle of this equation are parliamentarians who lack the resources and expertise to draft effective legislation and crucial amendments, when EU policy is under review, making them easily influenced by external forces.

Although Europe has a well-established environmental movement, the citizen sector and its environmental lobbyists in Europe tend to rely on short-term campaigning tactics that are not changing an inherently skewed EU system. They lack the strategic tools and legal expertise to speak the language of corporations and legislators, pushing for vague policy statements, public awareness, and quick wins instead of focusing on the implementation details held in legislation. Where in the US using the law has become common practice, taking official legal measures against the state, and using legal tools to create and implement good laws to solve environmental problems in Europe is underutilized, leaving a whole field ripe for innovation and new inputs.

In Europe, 90 percent of all environmental policy originates from the EU, which has the authority to pass legally-binding environmental policies for all member states. It is thus at this level that the legislative system is flawed, and policymakers fail to deliver effective results on the ground. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy is widely regarded as the most counter-productive in the world, with 75 percent of fish stocks overfished and up to 40 percent of all the catch being discarded back into the sea already dead. Policy routinely fails to set out concrete time frames for implementation, or lay out guidelines on what needs to change on the ground. Other legislation has hidden loopholes and fails to hold up to legal scrutiny—making the legislation difficult to enforce. Policymakers are failing to deliver on their environmental aims in the current system.

At the same time, when effective laws are in place, countries and even EU institutions often do not comply with their own rules. The European Commission documented almost 300 cases of states breaching EU environmental law in 2012, and the environment is the most infringement-prone policy area. Many countries breach air quality regulations, contributing to 39,000 deaths in the UK alone per year, with around 300,000 across the whole of the EU. The majority of these infringement cases are due to countries not properly enforcing the law locally, but there is little scope to improve this situation without open, transparent institutions, and a citizen sector which is ready and able to hold institutions to account, standing up for the law in courts.

The Strategy

James’s vision is for Europe to build institutions that truly take environmental interests into account, from EU bodies to member states to major industries. His aim is to put lasting incentive structures in place that favor long-term sustainability and re-balance the power structures at play. James uses the law as a tool to achieve this in a three-pronged approach: (i) by being legal advocates for the environment at the policymaking, legislative drafting and implementation stages (ii) by holding institutions to account through strategic litigation (iii) by transforming the capacities of COs to promote environmental justice.

The first part of James’s strategy is to close the legal resource-gap faced by policymakers in Brussels, the heart of the EU. ClientEarth’s team of lawyers provides expert help to dozens of Members of the European Parliament every year, as well as to COs and the European Commission, where environmental laws are first drafted. In 2010, for example, ClientEarth helped in the passage of the EU’s new timber legislation, the most comprehensive law on this theme worldwide. As ClientEarth’s credibility has grown, EU officials, from Members of Parliament to Commission officials, now routinely call on ClientEarth’s team for advice. Whereas other environmental interest groups focus exclusively on advocating for new policy and stop their work as soon as legislation is passed, James recognises that influencing the implementation phase is in fact of equal importance. James’s approach is therefore to follow through from policymaking to legislation, and then until it is translated into practices on the ground, often working with the European Commission and industry groups over a longer period of time.

James also recognizes that policymaking and implementation is affected by a wide range of actors other than parliamentarians. He has thus adopted a highly flexible, multistakeholder approach for the most highly contested areas of legislation. ClientEarth’s four-year push to reform the Common Fisheries Policy, for example, has involved working with an alliance of campaigning COs, meeting with national Environment Ministry officials and networks of fishermen, leveraging the press, and capturing the public imagination in the UK by working closely with the high-profile “Hugh’s Fish Fight” TV program. In order to engage business, ClientEarth set up the Sustainable Seafood Coalition to agree voluntary codes. The first code is a labelling scheme, which now has commitments from the UK’s major supermarket chains and other businesses covering 80 percent of the fresh fish market. Next, James hopes to drive an international expansion for this scheme across the EU. All of this has translated into impact on the new Common Fisheries Policy, which contains key provisions written by ClientEarth and is backed by widespread public support in key countries.

Strong legislation is an essential step to lay the groundwork for cross-country collaboration, but without uniform enforcement of these laws, Europe’s countries and industries will not be incentivized to fundamentally step away from the status quo. James is therefore using strategic litigation across Europe in key areas where the law needs clarification or is being breached, by launching cases against corporations, governments, and EU institutions. For example, James identified the construction of new coal fired power plants as a key risk for not meeting Europe’s emissions reduction targets, and has launched court cases in both the UK and Poland. In the UK, a new generation of six projected plants has been cancelled and the UK energy policy now rules out new coal. In Poland, four of fourteen proposed plants have been cancelled, all construction is stalled, and one of Poland’s largest energy producers declared it had re-analysed the market and will no longer build coal-fired power, instead favouring gas and increased energy efficiency. James is effectively using the law to shift the market away from industries that damage the environment. ClientEarth also won a landmark case against the UK this year in the UK Supreme Court, becoming the first citizens in the EU to ever enforce the EU’s Air Quality Directive. The European Court is now advising what the enforcement measures should be, setting a clear legal precedent across Europe. Through these landmark cases, James also aims to shift mindsets across the region, illustrating the role of citizens in holding institutions to account, and demonstrating that his new approach is in fact powerfully effective in the European context.

There are not only cultural but systematic barriers to using the law as a tool in Europe, however. James’s strategy to fundamentally change the system is therefore to open up EU institutions so that any citizen can have access to justice. To ensure the systematic enforcement of transparency, James set up the Aarhus Centre in 2011 with an open door policy for citizen groups. It offers free guides, training, and assistance to navigate the legal processes of requesting information, and challenges decisions to withhold information in court—which environmental organizations previously did not do. The Aarhus Centre also trains European civil servants on how best to release their data transparently. As a result, ClientEarth has helped numerous COs to access information, and encouraged them to use powerful legal tools in their strategy box. James is also working to remove the existing legal barriers for citizens to access environmental justice in the courts. For years, environmental organizations had campaigned that the financial risk of bringing cases to court in some countries, such as the UK, was a barrier to accessing justice. However, it was not until ClientEarth won a landmark ruling against the UK on this issue that the system started to move. The UK finally revised their policy in 2013 to cap the costs that individuals and environmental groups would have to pay to defendants if they lost, a policy change which will help the entire citizen sector to thrive. James has also brought additional cases forward against the EU and Germany. ClientEarth is thus laying the groundwork for an effective and mobilised citizen sector that can truly transform Europe’s broken environmental legislation system using the power of the law.

Over the past seven years, James has grown ClientEarth from an idea to a powerful organization, achieving recognition across Europe for impacting both policy and mindsets. After a period of unprecedented growth—expanding to a team of fifty high-quality lawyers and scientists--James is in a crucial stage of consolidating his strategy and operational structures across ClientEarth’s UK, Brussels, and Poland offices, before going on to impact additional key markets. He has secured long-term funding for the majority of his work through government contracts and individual and foundation support, and is now scaling the earned income streams he has begun by developing online fundraising and legal consulting work. In the future, James plans to create a global climate litigation program, collaborating with legal groups worldwide to spread his core approach. His work has already gained international attention, and he has been commissioned to advise and transform local institutions and citizen groups in South America and Africa. James believes that his idea can serve as an inspiration for other areas of human rights and policymaking. He is blazing a trail for Europe’s citizen sector, demonstrating that public law is a powerful tool for any number of social justice areas.

The Person

James grew up in New York in the US. His father was a law professor who kindled in his children a passion for justice, as well as a sense of personal responsibility. James quickly learned to hold his ground in philosophical debates with his three brothers over the dinner table. Nature and philosophy both captured his curiosity from a young age. James spent his summers exploring the local marshlands and bird species, and joined the founder of the Junior Entomological Society for field research when it was first set up in the 1960s. Frustrated by the narrow curriculum at school, at 16, before completing high school, James began to study philosophy and evolutionary biology at university.

Upon completing his bachelor’s degree in 1976, James went to law school, seeking practical tools to put his philosophical insights to use. Whilst there he became Editor of the Law Review, where he rebelled against the hierarchical leadership expected of his role and introduced consensus methods and collaborative curation among a team of sixty editors and staff. In his first year after graduating, James witnessed the power of legal approaches first hand, clerking for John Minor Wisdom, a federal judge who played a major role in desegregating the Southern States. James then joined a corporate law firm but found the work and culture deeply unsatisfying. He was shocked to discover that some of his client work had involved exploiting a major tax loophole, and left the firm during his second year.

In 1983 James joined the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where he set up a Citizens’ Enforcement Project. Under Reagan’s hands-off administration, James discovered that the number of Clean Water Act prosecutions per year had fallen from 300 to zero. He therefore brought forward sixty cases in six months on the behalf of local citizens and won every case, obliging companies to comply with the law and clean up the damage. Within a few years the project was able to wind down, as the Environmental Protection Agency was finally spurred into action and resumed their duty of enforcing the law. James also continued pursuing his interest in philosophy, spending time in California to explore humans’ relationship with the environment and with each other, and studying Zen. Not content to simply pursue academic or inward-looking learning, James founded Positive Futures, a center to teach mindfulness, empathy, and collaboration to changemakers to make their work more effective.

James then persuaded the NRDC to launch a new office in Los Angeles. He developed the office single-handedly and made collaborating with local networks the keystone to his approach. Over the course of a year, James met with all relevant stakeholders spanning local government, media, business, and citizen groups, seeking to develop a strategy specifically tailored to the local context and challenges. He had managed to mobilize the Hollywood community to back his initiative both publicly and financially, recruited a high-quality team, and launched the office’s work that is still active today, and is one of the most successful parts of the NRDC.

James moved to Europe in the early 2000s, helping to lead a research institute focusing on alternative medicines. At the same time, he began making sense of the unique structures he saw that characterized Europe’s environmental landscape. James spotted crucial gaps in the system: not one of the environmental activists in Brussels was a practicing lawyer, and advocacy approaches were failing to address key flaws in Europe’s legislative systems. James also knew that there was widespread cultural resistance to using the law as a tool for social change. However, as an outsider, James brought fresh eyes to imagining an alternative structure for Europe and saw that even in such a complex setting, law for the public interest could be a powerful new force if it was carried out with a nuanced and collaborative approach. James therefore set out across Europe in 2006 on a mission to build partnerships, understand the local challenges in depth, and craft an effective new solution. James retrained as a British lawyer and founded ClientEarth in 2007.

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