Sunday 7 May 2017 09.30 BST
It has been a richly satisfying week for James Thornton, founder and chief executive of the environmental law group ClientEarth. On Tuesday the government admitted defeat in its lengthy battle with the firm over atmospheric pollution and pledged that it would publish its strategy to improve air quality in Britain – which it did on Friday.
Ministers have, for the past decade, resolutely refused to acknowledge their obligations in dealing with a problem that is believed to be shortening the lives of thousands of people in the UK. Their change of mind, enforced by Thornton and his team of young lawyers, was a major, humiliating climbdown for our leaders and a significant victory for ClientEarth.
And that was just a start. In a separate development, ClientEarth – whose central office is in London – was informed by the European Union that it had decided to back its call for the rightwing government of Poland to stop cutting down trees in Białowieża forest, one of Europe’s most ancient woodlands, which sits across its border with Belarus.
“We have been told that the EU has warned Poland it must stop cutting down trees in the Białowieża forest or face an appearance before the European court and a substantial fine,” says Thornton. “I don’t know what it is about rightwing governments but they do seem to like chopping down trees all the time. However, in this case, this should stop Poland in its tracks.”
Thornton is a man who makes things happen, it would seem. Or stop happening, in many cases. Now 63, he launched ClientEarth in London more than a decade ago having cut his teeth as a rookie environmental lawyer in the US. There he worked for the National Resources Defense Council and was involved in successfully suing the Reagan administration over its failure to enforce America’s Clean Water Act. The Resources Defense Council was, and still is, funded by public and private donations and uses its legal might to hold governments to account over environmental issues. It is a model that Thornton decided to bring to Britain partly for personal reasons. His partner, and now husband, the English journalist and writer Martin Goodman, did not have a green card and so Thornton came to work in the UK.