A longtime environmentalist wants law to catch up to science

When Dan A. Emmett attended Harvard Law School in the early 1960s, there was no such thing as an environmental movement, let alone an environmental law class or clinic. But five years after his 1964 graduation, an ecological disaster awakened Emmett and many of his fellow Californians to the cause of environmental protection.

An oil platform off the coast of Santa Barbara ruptured, sending 3 million gallons of crude oil onto the city’s beaches and surrounding channels and killing tens of thousands of birds, seals and dolphins. Emmett, who witnessed the disaster from a shared beach house, recalls: “There was a foot of oil along the coast. It galvanized people to get organized.”

Emmett has made his career in real estate management and development. He co-founded the Santa Monica-based firm Douglas Emmett and Co. in 1971, and he is now chairman of its successor public company, Douglas Emmett Inc. An avid outdoorsman—he climbed Mount Everest in 1976 and was headed on a helicopter skiing trip to the Cariboo Mountains in British Columbia this spring—Emmett has held environmental concerns close to his heart since the Santa Barbara spill. He helped found the Santa Monica Baykeepers, to restore and protect the Santa Monica Bay, and his real estate company has pioneered energy and water conservation in commercial buildings. Now, a $5 million grant from Emmett has aided in the creation of the law school’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, which will soon bear his name.

“The political machinery and the juggernaut that is doing the damage to the environment are unstoppable unless you have very good environmental laws,” says Emmett. “The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act are very good, but lawyers have to understand how to use them. And in the climate change catastrophe, science is way ahead of the law in regulation and policy, so we have to train young lawyers to work on these issues.”

Emmett has seen some of his favorite places on earth degraded—from Santa Monica Bay to the hills of Northern California, where he grew up. He has also been saddened by the pollution around Mount Everest, which he came close to summiting along with climbing buddies Phil Trimble ’63 and Frank Morgan ’63 in 1976. For that expedition, the group hiked for three weeks in Tibet to reach base camp. Last year, Emmett drove along newly constructed roads to that same base camp, which was teeming with 30 climbing groups and littered with gear. Though he gave up high-altitude climbing when his children were young, at 68, Emmett is still an avid biker, kayaker and skier. Protecting the outdoors is his passion.

“The law and policy clinic has great potential,” says Emmett. “The student interest is there, and with the team of Dean Kagan, Jody Freeman and Wendy Jacobs, there is a chance to make a difference.”