Julian Castro is Obama’s Newest Climate Denizen

National Journal
Jason Plautz
June 23, 2014, 1:10 a.m.

As may­or of San Ant­o­nio, Texas, Ju­li­an Castro didn’t have much oc­ca­sion to weigh in on cli­mate change. But as a rising star in the Demo­crat­ic Party on the verge of tak­ing a Cab­in­et po­s­i­tion, cli­mate work is es­sen­tially go­ing to be a re­quire­ment.

Now that he ap­pears set to head the Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment, Castro will get his chance, thanks to Pres­id­ent Obama’s prac­tice of spread­ing out cli­mate work across the Cab­in­et. If con­firmed, Castro will be handed the keys to a re­cently an­nounced $1 bil­lion pro­gram to help areas hit by nat­ur­al dis­asters re­build and plan for cli­mate change.

Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment has taken on oth­er sus­tain­ab­il­ity re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, largely built on en­han­cing in­fra­struc­ture to make cit­ies more pre­pared for ex­treme weath­er. Out­go­ing HUD Sec­ret­ary Shaun Donovan said last year the mit­ig­a­tion work made the de­part­ment, “along with [the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency], the biggest play­er in long-term re­cov­ery.”

That’s the mis­sion of the $1 bil­lion Na­tion­al Dis­aster Re­si­li­ence Com­pet­i­tion an­nounced last week, which would help states re­cov­er from ex­treme weath­er dis­asters from the past four years ($180 mil­lion is set aside for states af­fected by Hur­ricane Sandy).

HUD also has its hands in en­ergy ef­fi­ciency, pro­mot­ing clean en­ergy among lenders. It’s part of the well-liked sus­tain­able com­munit­ies part­ner­ship with the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency and the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment, which pro­motes smart-growth de­vel­op­ment and clean trans­port­a­tion and hous­ing de­vel­op­ment. And HUD is one of the agen­cies the White House uses to reach out to cit­ies and com­munit­ies to work on en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues, an un­der-the-radar but key part of the cli­mate work (to whit, both EPA ad­min­is­trat­or Gina Mc­Carthy and En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz met with the U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors this week­end as the group signed a new Cli­mate Pro­tec­tion Agree­ment).

Castro’s re­cord, however, doesn’t in­clude as much dir­ect work on cli­mate change. His na­tion­al pro­file — rising in the Demo­crat­ic Party, where his name has been floated as a pos­sible vice-pres­id­en­tial pick — has largely been built on im­mig­ra­tion and eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. His most high-pro­file cli­mate an­nounce­ment was in 2011, when he de­clared Septem­ber to be “Cli­mate Change Aware­ness Month” in re­sponse to loc­al act­iv­ists who were look­ing for San Ant­o­nio to be more pro­gress­ive on cli­mate change.

With an equal eye on sus­tain­ab­il­ity and the loc­al eco­nomy, he did work to pro­mote clean en­ergy in the city, help­ing San Ant­o­nio to be­com the city with the sixth most sol­ar power in the coun­try (no small feat in a state no­tori­ous for not tak­ing ad­vant­age of its sol­ar po­ten­tial). Un­der Castro’s ten­ure, the loc­al util­ity, CPS En­ergy, com­mit­ted to a 20 per­cent re­new­ables goal by 2020 and said it would shut down a coal-fired plant by 2018.

“San Ant­o­nio has the op­por­tun­ity to seize a mantle that no city in the U.S. holds today: to be the re­cog­nized lead­er in clean-en­ergy tech­no­logy,” Castro said at the time. “By build­ing a crit­ic­al mass around re­search and de­vel­op­ment that will grow and at­tract the brain­power of the 21st cen­tury, San Ant­o­nio can be for the New En­ergy Eco­nomy what Sil­ic­on Val­ley is to soft­ware and what Bo­ston is to bi­otech.”

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have also praised him for clean trans­port­a­tion pro­grams like a bike-shar­ing and car-shar­ing pro­gram and pro­mo­tion of a high-speed com­muter line, pro­grams that will give him street cred in the sus­tain­able-com­munit­ies part­ner­ship.

Still, Castro doesn’t come in with the kind of full-throated cli­mate sup­port that is likely to be a fea­ture of the rest of Obama’s second term. Then again, neither did some of Obama’s first-term Cab­in­et mem­bers. Ray La­Hood, for ex­ample, took charge at the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment over grumbles from the en­vir­on­ment­al com­munity, but after five years he left with a track re­cord of pro­mot­ing strategies to re­duce auto­mobile use and trans­port­a­tion emis­sions.

Or con­sider Donovan, whose ca­reer pri­or to HUD had largely been built on af­ford­able-hous­ing pro­grams. Now he not only leaves HUD with a stable of en­ergy pro­grams, but if he’s con­firmed to head the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget, he’ll get to sign off on the meat of Obama’s cli­mate ac­tion plan.

So as the is­sue rises as a pri­or­ity in the Demo­crat­ic Party, HUD could of­fer a non­tra­di­tion­al way for its next big name to fill out his résumé.

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