James Thornton is the founding CEO of ClientEarth.

He launched ClientEarth in 2007, sparking fundamental change in the way environmental protections are made and enforced across Europe. Now operating globally, ClientEarth uses advocacy, litigation and research to address the greatest challenges of our time – including nature loss and climate change.

In the years since founding ClientEarth, James has developed an ever-growing team of environmental lawyers following his innovative approach to defend the oceans, protect forests and the people who depend on them, and tackle the climate crisis at its root.

With his leadership, ClientEarth has made air pollution one of the major issues of the day and brought successful actions protecting the health of citizens across Europe. Its work is always built on solid law and science. In 2017, James co-authored a book with his husband Martin Goodman, telling the fascinating story of ClientEarth since it was founded. The book won the judges category in the Business Book of the Year Awards in 2018.

The New Statesman has named James as one of 10 people who could change the world. The Lawyer has picked him as one of the top 100 lawyers in the UK. In 2016, he was named as one of the 1,000 most influential people in London. He has twice won Leader of the Year at the Business Green Awards. The Financial Times awarded him its Special Achievement accolade at the FT Innovative Lawyers Awards.


James has many years of experience as an environmental lawyer and social entrepreneur. A member of the bars of New York, California and the Supreme Court of the United States, and a solicitor of England and Wales, he moved from Wall Street law practice to found the Citizens’ Enforcement Project at NRDC in New York, where he brought 80 federal lawsuits against corporations to enforce the Clean Water Act after the Reagan Administration had stopped enforcing the law. He won these cases and embarrassed the government into enforcing the law again.

James then lived in California where he founded the Los Angeles Office of NRDC, which does internationally important environmental work with the support of the Hollywood community. He was Editor-in-Chief of the New York University Law Review, where he later served as Adjunct Associate Professor of Environmental Law. He has also been an executive in several other sectors of the non-profit world.


He graduated from Yale, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, with departmental honours in philosophy. He is the author of an environmental legal thriller, Immediate Harm, and volume of poetry on science and environment, The Feynman Challenge. Among other roles and honours he is a Conservation Fellow of the Zoological Society of London; a fellow of the Ashoka Foundation; Member of the Advisory Committee of the International Coalition for Green Development on China’s Belt and Road Initiative; Honorary Professor of Law at the University of Bristol; and Visiting Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

Much discussion of the environment has a negative focus. People often feel disempowered, that there is little they can do. We use law as a tool to mend the relationship between human societies and the Earth. We work in Europe and beyond, bringing together law, science and policy to create practical solutions to key environmental challenges.

James Thornton, CEO and founder