Secrets of the Disruptors:
James Thornton, ClientEarth

Secrets of the Disruptors James Thornton Client Earth

James Thornton is the founder and chief executive of ClientEarth. The award-winning environmental law firm was established in 2007 and uses advocacy, litigation and research to address environmental challenges, including biodiversity loss, climate change, and chemical pollution.

What does your organisation do and how is it challenging the industry status quo?

ClientEarth uses law to protect people and the planet. There is enormous power stored up in the law, and we use it to look for practical solutions to environmental challenges.

Our method is to work on laws throughout their lifetime, from the earliest policy stages to implementation – and when they are broken, we go to court to enforce them. When ClientEarth started a decade ago, this model was new to Europe. We now have offices in London, Brussels, Warsaw, New York City and Beijing.

Our work to protect people from dirty air has forced local, regional and national governments to innovate and has helped accelerate the move to cleaner vehicles. We currently have 30 air pollution cases going on across Europe and we are winning them all.

Why is this disruptive model critical for tackling environmental challenges?

The environmental movement in Europe evolved by campaigning, but when allied with law, it gains much greater power.

We forced the UK government to take action on air pollution and we stopped Bialowieza, a primeval forest in Poland, from being decimated – both through the combination of the courts and campaigning.

While climate change seems remote to people, dirty air is in their face, lungs and children. They are upset by it and want change. By cleaning up sources of air pollution, you clean up major sources of climate change.

How do you build public support for rapid disruption of established business models?

Communicating what we do is a key part of it. People are happy to have us on their side. They find it inspiring that a small group of people can have this much impact.

When myself and Martin Goodman, co-author of our book Client Earth and also my husband, give presentations on our book tour, people tell us, “environmental problems are so big that I’d lost hope, but you’ve given hope back to me.”

Which other sectors do you think are most ripe for green disruption?

Beyond energy and transport, we need to green all industry, agriculture, and investment. The good news is that, if we do, the inevitable disruptions from climate change we already face can be mitigated.

We can have the time of our lives reinventing our civilisation.

How do you think the business world is going to change by 2050?

Some things are clear, but much is hard to predict. Clearly artificial intelligence will have an enormously disruptive impact. It will build new opportunities and create new jobs, also dislocate millions of workers.

Beyond that, the question is how much the climate will have changed. It’s hard to predict. By then, society may be coping with the collapse of states – particularly in Africa, mass migration and food shortages. Business will have to cope too.

Read the full interview in the Secrets of the Disruptors report launched in collaboration with BusinessGreen.