All Rise

With Eyes on the Horizon: Alumnus leads Sierra Club’s efforts to combat climate change

By Monica DemeglioThe Ohio State University Law School Magazine | Summer 2013


David Scott ’87 gazed out on a wind-whipped sea of 50,000 people at the National Mall on Feb. 17. As a member of the Sierra Club’s national board, he was pleased to see the large turnout for the group’s event on such cold day in Washington, D.C. But the environmental activist came home to Columbus only further convinced that more people, more energy, and more attention must be cultivated in order to avert the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

Scott brings that passion to his new role as president of the Sierra Club. Fellow board members elected him to the post on May 18. In addition to taking on the more public role of serving as spokesperson at public functions, writing for blogs and op-ed pages, and engaging with donors, Scott also helps lead the organization as a whole with the executive director. It’s a demanding role – but one that comes with great opportunity to affect change globally.

“Anyone who isn’t humbled by being elected president of the Sierra Club doesn’t know the history of the environmental movement,” Scott said. “Our past presidents include John Muir and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Dr. Edgar Wayburn. Justice William O. Douglas served on our board, as did photographer Ansel Adams and David Brower. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I’m gratified beyond words.”

During the last three years, Scott served as the national vice president. In that position, he shared responsibility for overseeing the organization’s conservation program. While traditional lands protection work falls under that program, Scott says the group is focusing most of its resources on combatting the policies and apathy that contribute to U.S. reliance on coal, natural gas, and oil.

The group’s Beyond Coal campaign alone is a $33 million program involving hundreds of staff members and thousands of volunteers, and that’s just one of four major initiatives in which Scott helps provide leadership. Sitting in a Sierra Club office in downtown Columbus this winter, he quietly discussed scientific research about the need to end all coal emissions in the next 10 to 20 years and to move to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

“We’re already seeing what scientists predicted – more droughts, heat waves, and intense storms,” he said. “In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences signed a joint statement urging governments to cut carbon emissions. The Pentagon started issuing warnings during the Bush administration that we’re going to have international conflicts due to climate disruption. We’ve got bodies like the World Bank warning that we absolutely must avoid the warming scenarios we’re on course for. The difficult thing about climate is that if you’re not an alarmist, you’re not telling the truth about what we’re facing.”

The debate over climate change, Scott said, is manufactured by the fossil fuel industry. Ninety-seven percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree on the root cause of climate disruption, he said, adding, “There hasn’t been a debate among actual climate scientists for years. If I’m obsessed with climate change, it’s because I know what’s at stake.”

Scott has spent a lifetime taking in nature. He has watched grizzly bears and moose roam the Alaskan tundra and gazed upon cedar trees that are 1,000 years old. His passion for the environment was ignited when he was a boy, staring out from the bluffs and beaches surrounding Lake Erie on summer trips with his parents.

“It’s a body of water you can see from space. It’s something to look at – where you can’t see the other side,” he said. “It evokes that kind of awe you get from a forest that once covered the continent or the way the sky looks at Denali. It humbles you.”

He took part in Sierra Club-sponsored hikes in the 1970s and 1980s. He became an official member in 1990 and started leading hikes in the Columbus area a few years later. When a spot on the Ohio Chapter’s executive committee opened in the late-1990s, Scott ran for it and became the conservation chair soon after.

He’s worked at the national level for the last decade, and he was elected by the general membership to a three-year term on the national board in 2009 and re-elected in 2012. The board selects officers, and Scott was elected vice president for three consecutive years beginning in May 2010.

In addition to the obligations Scott tackled in that volunteer role, he also has had a busy practice with Disability Rights Ohio, the federally designated protection and advocacy agency for individuals with disabilities. He has concentrated mostly on accessibility and fair housing issues. “It’s also idealistic work, and it’s given me a feeling for how revolutionary the Americans with Disabilities Act was when it was adopted,” he said. “It’s generally making America a more accessible place, and that involves individuals with myriad different needs.”

Scott is proud of having built an “activist’s resume,” as he calls it. He shrugs when asked if he ever minds the travel and long hours on nights and weekends dedicated to the Sierra Club and other environmental causes. Despite the dismal outlook on a future with climate change, Scott still considers himself an idealist.

“I wouldn’t do what I do if I weren’t. Climate is discouraging because the stakes are so high. There’s already too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now to avoid Hurricane Sandy on a regular basis,” he said. “But there really are solutions. Germany has days where it gets 30 percent of its power from renewable sources. They changed their laws to be favorable to renewable energy and rooftop solar, and they invest in solar. We haven’t done that, and we need to promote efficiency through building codes, improvements to the grid, crafting policies that support renewable energy.”