DW: You've been called one of the 10 people that can change the world. What's your master plan?
James Thornton: The thing that allows a really small group of people to change the world is using the enormous power of the law. Legal systems encapsulate, really, what a society thinks about itself and the rules that people in the particular society have mutually agreed to be governed by. It always includes enforcement mechanisms.
If, for example, a government has passed a law about air pollution or water pollution and then it doesn't do the right thing and protect the people like the law says, we — using the power of the law — can go to the courts and force the government to do the right thing. That's an example of how just a few people can actually make a big difference.
Read more: Where is Europe's air safe to breathe?
You're currently suing a number of cities and in a couple of cases courts have already ruled that diesel vehicles should be banned. Berlin is one of them — how many more do you think will follow, and what immediate effect do you hope these bans have?
I think many, many more will follow. We're now beginning to see that when we simply write a letter to the politicians, they decide to make the changes themselves. It doesn't always happen, and then we have to sue.
After our case went up to the highest court in Germany and we won, the mayor of Rome — who had only had a polite letter from us — she announced that she wanted to protect the health of the people by banning diesel.
What we hope is, as we bring these cases, the governments will decide on their own to follow the law. It's not actually asking very much to have governments follow their own laws.
How do pick your battles and win as many cases as you do?
We always start by studying the science. Setting up Client Earth, one of the very first things was to ask climate scientists: 'If we could do one thing to help slow down climate change, what would it be?' They said, 'Stop any new coal-fired power stations from being built in Europe and then start closing down existing ones.'
Sometimes you need to use very different sorts of laws to get to where you want to go.
I'll give you an example: We just brought a very cool case in Poland a few weeks ago as the first case of its kind in the world. A big energy company called Enea, wanted to build a coal-fired power station.
Energy analysts said that this would be a bad investment. They wouldn't make money from it because coal is no longer a good investment. But the government is the biggest shareholder, and for political reasons it wanted to move ahead. So we bought shares in the company.
We sued the officers and directors of the company saying that they were violating their duties under corporate law by not taking the interests of the company and the shareholders into account by investing in this bad, bad investment.
I think companies all over the world are going to notice, and of course we'll bring more of this type of case and we will change their behavior.
Your work only makes a difference if the legal systems work. What do you do in countries where they don't?
There are some countries where it would be impossible to do our sort of work. We're always building the rule of law wherever we work. We're building the rule of law in the EU. In Africa, we are working in five countries.
In Gabon, for example, we had to bring together all of the forestry law. We published what's now the official Forestry Code of Gabon.
We started by working with NGOs and lawyers in the countries to explore what the legal rights of forest-dependent communities are, so we could protect those rights. And with African lawyers, we studied what the system of rights was in each country to see what rights were missing.
Then we supported the NGOs in going to the governments and saying, 'We need more of this or that right.' That's actually been quite successful.
In each of the countries, the governments then came to us and said, 'Well actually, we understand what you're doing and it's quite helpful. Could you also talk to us?' We said, 'Well, of course.' Then changes in the law came.
You're also working in China. What are you doing there?
China is very exciting. We've just been discussing how in Western Europe sometimes we have to fight governments. We also help them.
In China, the invitation was from the Supreme Court for me to give a seminar to members of the Supreme Court because they were hoping to write a law to allow citizens to sue companies that polluted.
They set up a system of environmental courts, from the Supreme Court all the way down to the provincial level. There are something like 3,000 environment court judges in China who are becoming experts in deciding environmental cases and it's been a real honor that the Supreme Court invited us to help train these judges in how to make environmental decisions.
Since we've been working with them for a few years now, the prosecutors have brought 2,000 enforcement cases in the courts.
You've been criticized for this because you're focusing on the environment and leaving aside human rights and social questions. What's your response?
Let's think about it this way: The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] very recently told us that we have 12 years to seriously shift the direction of society if we want a human civilization in future generations. Twelve years — that's not very long. So if I were to sit here and say, 'Well I'm not going to help the Chinese improve their environmental work until they've completely changed their human rights position,' 12 years might come and go many times and the world might not survive from an environmental perspective. I think one has to be pragmatic and one has to actually help the world's biggest polluter and the world's largest population.
Your court cases often take many years. Is the law too slow?
When people ask me the question is the law too slow, I say, 'As compared to what?' Let me just give you the example of air pollution: We sued the UK government in 2010 — which is when they needed to have complied with the law.
So we went to court and we forced them to come up with the plans and now we're holding them to the plans. By 2025, certainly, most of the UK should actually be complying with the limit. That's pretty good compared to never getting there.
What does it take for you personally to do this kind of work?
You need to believe that what you're doing makes sense. I don't know anything that I could be doing with myself that is anywhere near as interesting. Also, I am a Buddhist and in Buddhism, you take a vow to save all sentient beings. And I have a very literal-minded interpretation of that.
James Thornton is the CEO of environmental law firm Client Earth. Having fought environmental cases in the US, he helped change European law, making it easier to sue of environmental damage. Headquartered in London, Client Earth has offices in Brussels, Warsaw, Beijing — and now Berlin. Thornton is also a Zen Buddhist priest. While taking a break in nature, he likes to set his out-of-office autoreply to "I'm not in the office now. I'm visiting my client."
Anke Rasper conducted this interview, which has been edited for length. You can listen to the full interview here: