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Enabling environmental laws to work, and work equitably

Louise Bedsworth ’96

February 28, 2024
Louise Bedsworth ’96
Courtesy Photo

“Look around at any city and you’ll see it,” says Louise Bedsworth ’96: the neighborhoods sliced by freeways, dominated by factories, buzzing with trucks and haulers, or marked by neglect. In California, where Bedsworth lives and works, such things are the norm in places like Watts, Fresno, Ontario, and parts of Oakland—areas that, for generations, have held the least wealth and power while dealing with the most exposure to industrial pollution and a legacy of redlining, the now-illegal practice of racial discrimination by mortgage lenders and insurers.  

Regulating industrial emissions and equipment—as California has been working to do for decades—certainly provides important benefits to surrounding communities. But that alone won’t suffice, says Bedworth, the executive director of the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment (CLEE) at the UC Berkeley School of Law. “It’s not enough to say ‘Let’s clean this up,’” she says. The disadvantages, health issues, and disempowerment date back decades. “We have to think about building wealth and investment in communities,” she says. “It’s all part of implementing environmental law and policy.”

For the past two decades, Bedsworth has been working to help California do just that. She and 30-plus colleagues at CLEE collaborate to figure out not just how to design and pass new environmental laws, but how to make the existing ones work—and work equitably—for the people and institutions they are designed to help.  

And California has a lot of progressive environmental laws on the books. Last year, for example, the state passed a groundbreaking law that would ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Once environmental regulations are adopted, Bedsworth’s team studies how to get institutions and individuals to abide by them—and when they do, what that might mean for their immediate communities. 

CLEE’s recommendations, developed in collaboration with lawyers, policymakers, academics, environmental scientists, and others, have led to innovative thinking—and what Bedsworth hopes is some of the most equitable implementation of the world’s most progressive climate legislation. The areas those laws target run the gamut, including transportation and land use, carbon and methane emissions, and water use and regulation. Coordinating work with interdisciplinary scholars and community leaders, Bedsworth’s team, which is almost entirely supported by grants, interviews stakeholders and collects and analyzes data. Then it raises money for and designs “place-based” programs to help individual communities train their own leaders to make use of regulations, opportunities, and funds available to them under new laws.

Although CLEE is at Berkeley Law School, Bedsworth isn’t a lawyer. With a master’s in environmental engineering and a PhD in energy in resources from Berkeley, she worked as a researcher and an advocate, and spent a decade as an appointed policymaker in the offices of California governors Edmund G. Brown and Gavin Newsom, before joining CLEE in 2021.  

Now she leads a multitude of interdisciplinary collaborations that reach into every aspect of environmental regulation. But she’s perhaps best known for projects funded by California’s strategic growth council when she served as executive director—projects that involved designing, creating, and evaluating community-scale climate action programs that have served as models for other cities, states, and nations. These include fleets of electrified buses, car-sharing programs, free solar panel installations, urban gardening and forestry projects in well-known “food deserts,” programs to prevent food waste, and plans to encourage community engagement, workforce development, and affordable housing—all in multiple communities.

Bedsworth sees California as a natural test bed for new policies and implementation efforts, given its history of pioneering environmental legislation. All eyes are on whether, and how, the state succeeds, and for her, that’s what makes this work exciting. Beyond helping Californians, Bedsworth says she’s always thinking about “how to do this in ways we can replicate and scale in other places.” 

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