My job is to clean up the environment. China really wants to do that

Environmental lawyer James Thornton says Chinas ecological civilisation concept is the best response to the worlds environmental crisis

James Thorntons specialty is suing governments and corporations on behalf of his only client the Earth and hes very good at it. In his four decades of legal practice across three continents, hes never lost a case.

Acknowledging this in 2009 the New Statesmannamed him one of the ten people likely to change the world; ClientEarth, the public interest environmental law firm he started in London in 2007 now employs 106 people.

Thornton has been in Australia to talk about his work and his new book, Client Earth, which he co-wrote with his partner Martin Goodman. When I met them in Sydney, Thornton was keen to discuss his unlikely adventure in China, while Goodman, usually a reserved Englishman, enthused about the unexpected hope he found while writing Client Earth.

First invited to Beijing in 2014 to help implement Chinas new law allowing NGOs to sue polluting companies for the first time, Thornton has seen how serious the worlds biggest polluter is about addressing its environmental problems. He believes their concept of ecological civilisation is the best formulation hes heard for the new environmental story we must tell.

Facing the ruin of their environment, the Chinese looked hard and amended their constitution. This core document now calls for the building of an ecological civilisation, he says. We built an agricultural, then an industrial, and now must build an ecological civilisation.

I have no cynicism about whether they mean to do it. My job is to try and clean up the environment for future generations. The Chinese really want to do that. This task, apparently insurmountable for the west, is made possible by Chinas 2,500-year tradition of centralised government.

They said, we have a long-term vision, we want to be here in another 2,000 years and that will only happen if we clean up the environment. So we have determined that were going to deal with our environmental problems and were going to do so in a very thoroughgoing way.

Thornton said it helps that most of the politburo are engineers, rather than political scientists, lawyers or economists as in the west. So when they actually decide that there is a problem and it takes actual evidence to get them there they define the problem and then their next question is: whats the solution? How can we afford it, how quickly can we do it, and how can we marshal all forces in society to get there?

At first Thornton thought this was rhetoric. And then I realised it wasnt rhetorical. So by the time we got deep into conversation and I first heard the notion of ecological civilisation, I asked several very senior officials, Is this serious? And they said Yes, absolutely serious. Its been central policy now for some years.


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Chinese workers prepare panels that will be part of a large floating solar farm project under construction on a lake caused by a collapsed and flooded coal mine in Huainan, Anhui province, China. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

With a group of Chinese experts and five other westerners, Thornton spent 18 months analysing how to create the legal structures for an ecological civilisation. They then gave recommendations for how to create the rule of law to deliver it. Thats typical of what theyre doing. Theyve thrown hundreds of their best intellectuals at designing the theoretical framework for each of the pieces of the architecture of ecological civilisation. These include economic, industrial and agricultural policies for an ecological civilisation.

Thornton says that when he first went to China, hed only read the western media about it and had many of the same notions hes often challenged with, especially concerning democracy and human rights. And I understand where they come from. But I also know that the western democracies that we prize so much arent doing very well with respect to the environment. Weve elected somebody in the United States who seems really dedicated to the notion of contempt for the environment.

In the west, efforts to address environmental problems are fragmentary and not well funded. Whereas in China, he says, suddenly you have this direction from the top on down asking all of these top people over the course of the next few decades: How does everything have to change to deliver this?

Thornton is also a Zen Buddhist priest, which helps him to see intractable environmental problems with a commanding clarity and precision, and to approach them with admirable pragmatism, patience, tenacity and long-term strategy. Law becomes about saving civilisation, he says. Law is the answer to the question Im often asked: what can I do about global problems?

The extraordinary challenges Thornton overcame to bring environmental litigation to Europe are among the many inspiring stories Goodman tells in ClientEarth. Jamess first actions were therefore brazen, Goodman says. In the UK, he set out to change the cost rules. In Germany and at the EU level, the matter was one of standing: rights had to be granted for citizens to bring serious environmental concerns to the courts.

Thornton did change the legal system and ClientEarth flourished. In 2016 the Financial Times named this small non-profit firm in the top 50 law firms in the world. ClientEarth also won the most innovative law firm award and Thornton won a special achievement award.

It was then that Goodman realised ClientEarth was an ugly duckling story: The poor relation charity environmental law group that suddenly found itself among the swans of top global law firms.

ClientEarthis a rare thing: a hopeful book about the environment and a page-turner about the law. Goodman is professor of creative writing at the University of Hull and a lively storyteller. His chapters recount Thorntons life and work; Thorntons are meditations on the laws moral dimensions.

Thornton and Goodman have been together for 25 years and their conversation swings from Thorntons urgent stories about systemic change to Goodmans tales of hope. Despite having lived with ClientEarth for a decade, it was only when Goodman came to write the firms story that he began to fathom just how powerful its legal work really is.

I think its the most important thing going, he says. The environment no longer seems an intractable problem. We need lawyers, they bring hope, they can help you.

It seems this hope is contagious. Alice Garton, a lawyer from the Northern Territory, feels like the luckiest person on the planet to be working for ClientEarth. Ive spent years of my life being really depressed about climate change and pessimistic, she says. Since starting here, Im optimistic.

Client Earthhad a similar effect on Brian Eno, a long-time supporter and trustee of the firm. After reading the book to write its foreword, Eno was so inspired he told Thornton: I want to come and live with you in the office for three days to really see how I can help.

Thornton replied: Youre the worlds greatest producer, so what Id like you to do is produce ClientEarth. Something great will come of that.


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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Brian Eno and ClientEarths James Thornton talk about law and the environment.

When asked about his own most inspiring moments, Thornton names three. <a href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Preventing Poland from building a new generation of coal-fired power stations. Enforcing the first environmental laws in the US, introduced by Nixon in 1970 along with the Environment Protection Agency, but flouted by Reagan. When Reagan told the new head of the EPA to disable it, Thornton almost singlehandedly (with a scientist) showed them that somebody could do it better, embarrassing them into enforcing the law again. And his work in China.

Im tough and patient, Thornton says. This is an understatement. Aged eight, a spider-loving Thornton considered studying entomology but realised that wouldnt help the threatened natural world. So he decided to become a lawyer, to fight for its protection. But this was the early 1960s and there were no environmental lawyers then. So Thornton helped to found his vocation, including teaching the first courses on environmental law.

Now Thornton is looking to the next stage of the Paris Agreement. Paris was a turning point in history, he says. The next stage must be a legal framework and enforcement, otherwise citizens can go to court to accuse their government of not implementing the law, and we will help them do so. When the law is passed, the work begins.

But these laws are new and fragile and need our active support. As Goodman says: I think people have got to understand that these laws are around, theyre really vulnerable, and theyll die unless we pay them attention and demand that theyre held strong.

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