ClientEarth, a novel environmental law charity, discussed by its founder

by Stephen Hewitt | Published 27 November 2017 | Last updated 28 November 2017

26 Nov 2017: James Thornton, Martin Goodman & Brian Eno signing copies of ‘Client Earth’ in Cambridge
26 November 2017: James Thornton, Martin Goodman & Brian Eno signing copies of ‘Client Earth’ in Cambridge

On Sunday 26 November 2017 the lawyer who started an extraordinary environmental charity was speaking in the Cambridge Union chamber.

James Thornton, an environmental lawyer, talked about the work and success of ClientEarth, a UK-registered charity that he started in 2006. Professor Martin Goodman and Brian Eno shared the platform, with Eno acting as chair of the discussion

Martin Goodman, Professor of Creative Writing at Hull, was co-author with Thornton of Client Earth, a book on the subject published earlier in 2017.

Brian Eno, the well-known musician, is a ClientEarth trustee and contributed a preface to the book.

James Thornton moved to England from the USA and he said:

“And what ClientEarth is, is an attempt to take the intellectual DNA of an organisation in the United States called the NRDC and translate it into the very different cultures of Europe, very different from American culture.”

“But the intellectual DNA is for lawyers to organise themselves in a charity and then have no traditional clients.”

Instead of traditional clients, he said, “the idea is the earth and everyone who lives on earth, all of you, are the clients.”

So then with no traditional clients, “You ask yourself what are the big strategic issues that need to be worked on for the environment and human health?”

He said this is how he trained as a lawyer in the USA for many years. He started when USA President Ronald Reagan stopped enforcing environmental laws. Then in his twenties, Thornton picked the Clean Water Act “as a law that looked like we could enforce it and do what Justice Department, the Federal Government had stoppped doing.”

He said that the year before there had been 350 prosecutions and in Reagan's first year this fell to zero. Thornton soon had 60 cases going to federal court and eventually “embarrassed” the federal government into enforcing the law again. This, he said was a “great taste” of being able to use the law in a powerful way.

After the discussion and audience questions, all three signed copies of the book. The hardback book was available in the Union building (for £20) from the Cambridge bookseller Heffers who had set up shop on a nearby table. A queue of people formed to collect the three signatures on each book.

Entering the debating chamber together, the three had received an unsolicited round of applause They were then introduced by Mary Nathan who named Pivotal and Transition Cambridge as sponsors.

The talk was part of the Cambridge Literary Festival, with an entrance price of £12 - reduced to £10 for those under 25, who were not much in evidence, there instead being a high proportion of heads with grey and white hair in the audience.

Numbers attending were such as to make the Cambridge Union chamber appear almost full but not packed tight, and anyone arriving late would have been able to spot a spare space without too much searching.

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