Book review: ‘Client Earth’ by James Thornton and Martin Goodman

Using the law to take on threats to the environment may be less exciting than taking the fight directly to polluters, but can be just as effective.

Captain Planet was a 1990s cartoon character, a kind of green Superman who fought acid rain, litter and other global eco-scourges.

Though I remember the TV show (a catchy soundtrack told how the Y-fronted muscleman was “gonna take pollution down to zero”), I cannot recall whether the hero had a secret identity in the manner of Clark Kent. If he did not, someone like James Thornton might have sufficed for that mild-mannered alter ego role.

Thornton is a hero of sorts. He is a visionary Irish-American lawyer who sits at the helm of pioneering environmental law-cum-lobbying firm Client Earth, perhaps best known in Britain for forcing the government to act on illegal levels of air pollution.

He and his husband Martin Goodman - pictured above - are co-authors of ‘Client Earth’ (Scribe, £20; ISBN 9781911344087), an at times polemical book that takes the form of thematic chapters interspersed with Thornton’s thoughtful essays. There is also a foreword by Brian Eno, just one of Client Earth’s many rich and famous backers.

If rifling through a morass of tort law seems less high-octane than blockading whaling vessels at sea à la Greenpeace, that’s because it is, and the authors do a good job of making this account so breezily readable and entertaining.

Client Earth’s origins can be traced back to a suite of Acts brought in by President Richard Nixon (of all people) which Thornton used to help clean up the heavily polluted one-time paradise of Chesapeake Bay. Since then it has expanded outwards, such that it now seems that wherever storm clouds may be gathering, it is close at hand applying pressure. When the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership looked set to undermine environmental laws, Client Earth helped thwart it. When new coal-fired power stations loomed in Poland, James ‘Captain Planet’ Thornton swung into action. Kerpow! He even seems to have the ear of the Chinese Communist Party, whose commitment to building an ‘ecological civilisation’ in the one-party state he has faith in.

His strategy - eschewing the sound and fury in favour of cleverly targeted law suits - is proving highly effective at restraining governments and corporations that would otherwise plunder resources and ride roughshod over habitats. But as Thornton acknowledges, such efforts depend on having healthy jurisdictions in the first place.

“You need a fairly well ordered society before you can start protecting the environment,” he writes. “You may need to build the rule of law before you can get a solution.”

As an insight into the workings of an organisation that is shaping the environmental agenda, this book is illuminating. Sadly lacking is much acknowledgement of the complications that can arise when this agenda is implemented in the all too messy, all too human conditions of The Real World. The toxic air crisis that Client Earth is involved in helping tackle has arisen partly because of the take-up of diesel cars, which people were incentivised to buy because they were told by their betters that these were environmentally friendly vehicles. Likewise, climate imperatives have led to power stations burning wood pellets, which quite possibly exacerbate global warming.

Thornton writes that he is a “great fan” of the EU, but one comes away from this book with the distinct impression that the US has been superior in the field of environmental protections. Indeed, one-size-fits-all supranational schemes like the Common Fisheries Policy are portrayed in an unflattering light, though Thornton would doubtless argue Client Earth has been helping reform them.

Even the Paris Agreement, celebrated in this book, has hardly been immune to criticism from environmentalists. Some uncomfortable realities – Donald Trump’s presidency, for instance – are also strangely ignored. But this nonetheless makes for an inspiring read. It shows how the long arm of the law is not just within the gift of the authorities to wield. Engaged citizens can do it too.

Oh, and it even contains a mention of good old Captain Planet. In a chapter on deforestation in Africa, Samuel Mawutor, the coordinator of a coalition of Ghanaian environmental NGOs, says he was inspired by the character as a child but that it “wasn’t clear” what the superhero’s overall strategy was.

The same cannot be said of Client Earth.

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