Jon HuntsmanHe’s left China behind — and climate hawkishness too.Photo: saucy panA couple of months ago, I asked, “Is Jon Huntsman the greenest GOP presidential hopeful?” In 2007, as Utah governor, he brought his state into the Western Climate Initiative, a regional cap-and-trade program. And up through 2009, when he took the post of ambassador to China, he called repeatedly for climate action. I noted that while many Republican presidential contenders had backed away from concern about climate change, Huntsman “has not backtracked — at least not yet.”

Well, now the backtracking has begun.

In his first big media interview since leaving his ambassadorship, Huntsman danced around just about every topic that Time‘s Melinda Henneberger asked about — Afghanistan, Libya, his Republican rivals, his disagreements with Obama, his Mormon roots. But he was happy to, as Henneberger put it, “junk his support for the regional cap-and-trade carbon-emissions pact he and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger once championed.”

“It hasn’t worked,” he says now [of the Western Climate Initiative], “and our economy’s in a different place than five years ago.” Until it recovers, he adds, “this isn’t the moment” to keep trying.

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Sharp-eyed readers will note that the Western Climate Initiative’s cap-and-trade program hasn’t actually started yet, so unless Huntsman has traveled back in time from an apocalyptic future, it’s unclear what his basis is for saying it “hasn’t worked.” But given the political climate, it’s unlikely any Republicans will fault him for the temporal inconsistency.

Huntsman’s words do not amount to a denial of climate science or a repudiation of all climate action — the kind of stuff we’ve heard from his GOP competitors — but this was a definite dis for cap-and-trade.

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UPDATE, 5/17/11: Time released excerpts of Henneberger’s interviews with Huntsman, including a few questions about climate change. Huntsman is inclined to believe in climate science, but, again, says now is not the time for cap-and-trade because he believes it would hurt economic recovery:

You also believe in climate change, right?

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. 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 so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community — though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

Matt [David, Huntsman’s communications director,] says you’ve changed your mind about cap-and-trade.

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.

Will it ever be the moment, though? The environment never takes priority because it never seems like something has to be addressed this quarter or else, but if you look at what’s happening to our planet …

If anyone knows about the need to clean up the planet, we do; we’ve been living somewhere [Beijing] where you feel like you’re killing your kids sending them out to school every day. But putting additional burdens on the pillars of growth right now is counter-productive. If we have a lost decade, then nothing else matters. Ask Japan about that.

UPDATE, 5/18/11: Huntsman is now getting bashed by the right wing for suggesting that climate scientists might be worth listening to.