Jon Huntsman Jr. saw a bright future for Westerners when, shortly after signing up his state for a regional cap-and-trade program four years ago, he touted what they had to gain from tackling climate pollution.
"If we do this right," said Huntsman, who would win a second term as Utah's governor the following year, "our citizens are going to have a better quality of life, we're going to spawn new technologies and industries, and we're going to leave our most important belongings in better shape for the next generation."
But now, in a political environment rocked by recession and a rowdy tea party, and with Huntsman's eyes on a possible presidential run in 2012, his position has evolved. He's still defending the science of climate change, but he has ditched his support for cap-and-trade.
Huntsman said in TIME magazine a few weeks ago, soon after stepping down as U.S. ambassador to China, that the regional cap-and-trade program he formally endorsed and promoted, the Western Climate Initiative, "hasn't worked." Because of the recession, "this isn't the moment" for climate change policies, he added.
It's a position shared in varying degrees by other GOP contenders, including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, all of whom were past supporters of cap-and-trade a strategy to reduce greenhouse gases using a sort of commodities-trading model.
But Huntsman in contrast to Gingrich, Pawlenty and tea party favorites like Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul maintains that scientists are right climate change is a real concern, "an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community."
"All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring," he told TIME. "If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer, we'd listen to them.
"I respect science and the professionals behind the science," he continued. "…though we can debate what [the scientific community's conclusion] means for the energy and transportation sectors."
The comments that climate science is right but climate policy is not for right now stake out a position for Huntsman, the former head of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, as a moderate. And that could be just the sort of candidate voters are looking for in the general election.
Lexi Shultz, who watches climate and energy policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said candidates snub the climate issue at their own risk.
"There's a lot of general public support for climate solutions," she said. "The GOP may be painting themselves into a box by denying climate science and resisting climate solutions when it comes to the general election."
But the reality is, Huntsman, like any other GOP hopeful, first has to survive the conservative-dominated Republican primaries.
That's a highly questionable proposition for Huntsman, say climate-change skeptics like Marc Morano.
A former GOP Senate staffer who runs the prominent blog ClimateDepot.com, Morano declared Huntsman "DOA" as a GOP nominee, at least in part because of his positions on climate change.
"That's not going to fly with the GOP voters," he said, adding that many Republican voters won't be able to trust Huntsman given his former support for cap-and-trade and his continuing support for climate science. "I don't think they'll even consider him in the first place."
Rejection of the notion of man-caused climate change and of the solution of cap-and-trade appears to be an article of faith for conservatives. For evidence, one has to look no further than the Utah Legislature and the demise of the former governor's climate-related initiatives shortly after his departure.
Last year, just a few months after Huntsman became U.S. Ambassador for China, lawmakers passed resolutions urging the governor to pull out of the Western Climate Initiative and resisting greenhouse-gas regulation given, among other things, "questionable climate data."
This year, the Republican-dominated Legislature repealed the four-day workweek that Huntsman had implemented at the suggestion of his two-year Blue-Ribbon Advisory Committee on climate change. Lawmakers even mustered the two-thirds vote to override a veto by Huntsman's successor, Gov. Gary Herbert. At the same time, executive branch staff members who used to work on climate change have been reassigned.
Myron Ebell of Freedom Action, a Web-based political action group affiliated with the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, called Huntsman "a disappointment" as governor who, as an urbanite, was always "out of touch" with the interests of the rural West. His positions on climate change make Huntsman "pretty close to being disqualified for the GOP," Ebell said.
"Global warming as an issue is dead," said Ebell, a native of rural western Oregon. "The American people have made up their mind."
The assessment is far different from those who see climate policy as a continuing concern for a majority of Americans.
Earlier this year, before Huntsman backed away from cap-and-trade, the progressive magazine Mother Jones called him "the most climate-cognizant contender for the Republican presidential nomination."
"In fact," the article said, "he downright looks like a climate hawk."
That, of course, was then, and now some wonder if Huntsman might eventually back away from the science, too.
At least for now, Navin Nayak, who leads the League of Conservation Voters' candidate advocacy program in Washington, gives Huntsman credit for standing behind scientific conclusions about climate change, which have actually grown stronger in recent years as political fashion has tilted against the scientific evidence.
Meanwhile, the GOP presidential contenders who disavow climate science could actually be creating a political liability for themselves, he said.
"I'm not sure the GOP electorate is going to buy those phony changes in positions," Nayak said. "People who flip-flopped have raised questions about their character."
A Huntsman climate timeline
2006 • Utah's GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. organizes a panel to assess climate change that commissions a science report and develops a climate to-do list. Recommendations that are implemented in 2008 include emissions targets to reduce greenhouse gasses to 2005 levels by 2020, an energy-saving four-day workweek for state government employees and a nonbinding renewable portfolio standard.
2007 • Utah becomes the 31st state to join the Climate Registry, an organization focused on measuring, tracking and verifying emissions of greenhouse gasses blamed for climate pollution.
A few weeks later, Huntsman signs onto the Western Climate Initiative, making Utah the seventh state (and one of two states led by GOP governors) to be part of an effort to create a regional cap-and-trade program.
The Western Governors Association leaders, with Huntsman as vice chairman, throws its support behind the regional climate efforts the following month, and Huntsman appears in a climate-action television commercial with fellow Govs. California Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Montana Democrat Brian Schweitzer. Huntsman continues that priority during his term as chairman, from 2008-2009.
2009 • President Barack Obama taps Huntsman to be U.S. ambassador to China.
2010 • The Legislature scales back Utah's climate program with resolutions to opt out of the Western Climate Initiative and to protest a new federal climate regulation, which lawmakers say is based on corrupt and faulty science.
What is cap and trade?
Cap-and-trade proposals use market forces to reduce the pollution blamed for climate disruption by making avoidance of greenhouse gases a commodity, which can be traded like metals or crops. The Associated Press
A look at the past positions on climate change of some of the GOP presidential contenders, and what they're saying now:
Jon Huntsman Jr.
Then: "Now it's time for Congress to act by capping greenhouse gas pollution." Environmental Defense Action Fund ad, 2007.
Now on the science: "This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community. I'm not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring." Time magazine, May 23, 2011.
Now on the policy: "Cap-and-trade ideas aren't working; it hasn't worked, and our economy's in a different place than five years ago. Much of this discussion happened before the bottom fell out of the economy, and until it comes back, this isn't the moment." Time magazine, May 23, 2011.
Then: Speaking of a regional cap-and-trade pact for power plant emissions, "This is a great thing for the Commonwealth (of Massachusetts). We can effectively create incentives to help stimulate a sector of the economy and at the same time not kill jobs." The Boston Globe, Nov. 8, 2005.
Now on the science: "He believes the climate is changing but he does not know the extent to which human activity is contributing to it." Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul, May 18, 2011.
Now on the policy: "Gov. Romney opposes cap and trade because it is bad for business and it costs jobs." May 18, 2011, Andrea Saul.
Then: "If we act now, we can create thousands of new jobs in clean energy industries before our overseas competitors beat us to it. So come on, Congress, let's get moving. ... Cap greenhouse gases now." Environmental Defense Action Fund radio ad, 2008.
Now on the science: "I think climate change occurs, but the bulk of it is natural historic trends in climate. There is some suggestion that humans have caused some of it, but the answer is not a government, top-down scheme." WHO radio interview, April 1, 2011.
Now on the policy: "What I concluded subsequently is it is really a bad idea. It is ham-fisted. It is going to be harmful to the economy." South Carolina debate, May 5, 2011.
Then: "I started by saying let's stipulate that it is probable global warming is going on, and that it is conceivable human beings have a role, and therefore as a matter of prudence we ought to have less carbon loading of the atmosphere." New York Times interview, Nov. 13, 2007.
Now on the science: "I distinguish 'science' from 'political science,' and when I see 6,000 scientists sign something, that's called political science. That's not science." The Macon Telegraph, May 14, 2011.
Now on the policy: "It is inconceivable that any threat from global warming is big enough to justify destroying the American economy." The Macon Telegraph, May 14, 2011.