Julian Castro is Obama's Newest Climate Denizen

National Journal

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.