For a while there, Jon Huntsman was the one Republican presidential candidate willing to deliver the straight dope on climate change. “To be clear,” he tweeted in August, “I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” He even argued that climate skepticism could cost the GOP a victory in November: “The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012.” Enviros praised Huntsman as the heroically rogue elephant.
Then he joined the herd.
In December, Huntsman told an audience at the Heritage Foundation that the “scientific community owes us more in terms of a better description or explanation” of climate change, and that there is “not enough info right now to be able to formulate policies.”
Since withdrawing from the GOP primary in mid-January and endorsing Mitt Romney, Huntsman has stayed visible in the media, challenging Romney’s position on trade with China and suggesting that the country might need a third party with “an alternative vision, a bold thinking.”
But has he come to any more clarity on his climate views? We called him up to find out.
Q. You tweeted last summer that you trusted scientists on climate change. But in December, you suggested that the science isn’t very strong. What is your view on human-caused climate change?
A. I’ve always said that I put my belief behind science. When you have 99 of 100 climate scientists who are saying that there is something happening here, [and] we have the National Academy of Sciences basically saying the same thing — that’s where I tend to place my belief.
The comment I made [in December] was that there is confusion in the minds of a lot of Americans about where the science is because of the debate still going on within the scientific community. I do believe that greater clarity is needed on the subject because you can’t get good public policy without clear and consistent and scientifically backed data and climate forecasts.
Q. If 99 of 100 scientists are saying human-caused climate change is real and happening, where is the debate?
A. Well, it hasn’t translated into any kind of action within the political community because you don’t have people on a broad basis who are pushing us because they feel it’s urgent. Like, for example, debt — people are pushing the debt agenda because they see that this nation is drowning in debt. They’re not pushing a clean-energy agenda today because they just don’t see the urgency. The political policy agenda does not move unless it has people who are moving it.
Q. Are you saying the problem lies with climate scientists — that they lack urgency — or that it lies within the political community that is failing to hear the urgent message from scientists?
A. I think in many ways the whole discussion has been eclipsed by the jobs deficit right now. We are in a serious economic hole because we have a jobs deficit. There isn’t a whole lot of bandwidth for anything else.
Q. So, to be clear: The scientific community is doing its job and the political community is just not making room for it.
A. I haven’t heard the scientific community speak with a unified voice in some time on this subject matter. Maybe that’s because, again, it’s taking a backseat to some of these other more urgent issues that are economics related. I’m not following the issue today like I was several years ago.
Q. But climate scientists are saying we have to act immediately, yesterday, to solve this crisis. Do we really have time to wait for the economy to turn around to address it?
A. People running for office are generally a reflection of where they think the electorate is, and right now the electorate wants movement on jobs and on debt and not much else.
But I think the energy sector is going to be critically important to job creation and innovation and competitiveness in the next 25 to 50 years.
Q. You brought Utah into the Western Climate Initiative, and then disavowed the initiative, saying it “hasn’t worked.” Why?
A. Because it lost momentum with the business community, and therefore it lost momentum with the people in many of the Western states. There’s a question in many minds about where climate change is and what the public-policy implications are with respect to that.
Q. In 2007, you did an ad for Environmental Defense calling for a cap on carbon emissions. What do you think we as a nation should do to address climate change?
A. The most important short-term step we could take would be a rapid conversion to natural gas. It’s still a hydrocarbon, but it’s 50 percent better than oil, and it’s a step in the right direction.
Politics is the art of the possible. What is possible in today’s discussion on clean energy? It isn’t a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade scheme — I just have to be honest with you, that is not going to be viable politically. What is viable is a movement more aggressively toward use of natural gas.
Q. But scientists are saying we need solutions that will radically reduce our carbon output, not energy sources that are less bad.
A. It’s a step in the right direction on climate and in terms of energy independence. It’s a whole lot better than just managing the status quo.
Q. Do you still support a cap on carbon emissions?
A. Not if it would stand in the way of getting this economy back on its feet and creating jobs. And I have not yet heard articulated any kind of [carbon-cap] program that would do anything other than hinder our economic rebound.
Q. In the last presidential election year, climate change was almost a bipartisan issue. What has happened in the last four years? How did this issue get so polarized?
A. I don’t hear Democrats talking about it either. I don’t see it on the agenda anywhere. And the No. 1 reason is because we’ve had an economic implosion.
I used to run the Republican Governors Association and we had, almost to a person, Republicans and Democrats alike who were after the same basic solutions [on climate]. And then our economy imploded. That presented a much different reality, and we’re still stuck in that reality.
Q. But it’s more than that. You got bashed for even suggesting that climate scientists might be worth listening to. Why is there such severe pressure on Republican politicians not just to ignore climate science, but to repudiate it?
A. It’s become politicized. It’s been taken out of the scientific realm, and it’s been put in the political realm, sadly enough. People aren’t going to hear out the scientific community until such time as the economy rebounds.
Q. Do you think your position on climate change hurt you during the primary?
A. Oh, it didn’t help at all.
Q. What were some of the most surprising reactions you got from both supporters and skeptics on the campaign trail on the issues of climate and clean energy?
A. There was no desire to talk about it. If it was talked about, it was more in conspiratorial terms, which made it very difficult to have any kind of rational discussion about clean energy and our future.
Q. You supported the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Tar-sands oil is responsible for about a quarter more carbon pollution well-to-wheel than conventional oil. How do you reconcile your support of high-carbon technology with your concerns about climate?
A. Because I compare that to the transfer of $300 billion a year to the Middle East and other countries from whom we’re importing 60 percent of our oil. If you factor in what taxpayers are footing for deployment of troops overseas and keeping the sea lanes open for oil importation, the cost of gasoline is about $12 to $13 a gallon. That is completely unacceptable. The [tar-sands] alternatives aren’t perfect, but they move us in a direction that I like from a jobs-creation standpoint and from a national-security standpoint.
Q. The hidden costs of carbon emissions could have far more disastrous effects on the national and global economy in the long term.
A. I believe [the tar-sand oil offers] far better economic and security benefits short term to this nation at a time when we desperately need it.
Q. Does America need to have an aggressive climate plan in place if we want to convince other countries like China to address the problem?
A. The Chinese are not going to follow our lead. We can say and do whatever we want and the Chinese and the Indians, Brazilians, and beyond are likely going to move as a bloc of developing countries, to their own rhythm, at a pace that doesn’t harm their emerging industries.
Q. China’s wind and solar companies are thriving, thanks in large part to massive government subsidies. What should the U.S. be doing to compete with Chinese companies?
A. First we have to ensure that they’re engaging in fair trade practices, because there have been instances of unfair dumping of their photovoltaics.
Beyond that, if we are intent on creating jobs and capturing the industries of tomorrow, then clean energy clearly is going to be one of them. It may not evolve at a pace or a speed that some thought possible a few short years ago, but it will evolve. We don’t want China owning the intellectual property rights [to cleantech innovations] and then having a superior connection to economic development in the energy sector. We also want to pursue technology and owning that intellectual property.
Q. What specifically can we do to accelerate the pace of development of our own cleantech innovation? China has set an aggressive national target for renewable energy. You set a renewable target while you were governor of Utah. Do we need a bold national renewable energy goal?
A. I think the states are probably the right place to look at renewable energy standards. And you’ve got to work as regions for purposes of having the right infrastructure to distribute clean energy, a smart-grid system — a group of regional governors figuring out the cross-border issues. And once that discussion begins, there is a role for the federal government to come in. But it’s foolhardy for the federal government to step in and manage something that’s ahead of where the states are ready to go. That would backfire.
Q. Can you foresee a Huntsman 2016 campaign with a strong plank for climate and cleantech?
A. [Laughs.] I have no idea where life’s gonna take me beyond the here and now.
Q. Will there be a critical mass of public support for these issues by 2016?
A. We’ll have to wait and see. I’ve given up making forecasts politically.