Jon HuntsmanJon Huntsman: Will he keep telling it straight on climate change?Photo: World Economic Forum

[See updates at the bottom.]

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is looking like the most climate-cognizant contender for the Republican presidential nomination. In fact, he downright looks like a climate hawk.

Huntsman — who is resigning his position as ambassador to China in order to, as they say, explore his options — has been outspoken about the need for climate action, and, as governor, signed his state up for a regional cap-and-trade program as part of the Western Climate Initiative.

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He’s obviously greener than outright climate deniers like Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and flip-floppers like Newt Gingrich, but he might also be more climate-hawkish than Tim Pawlenty, who called for moderate climate action while he was governor of Minnesota but more recently has questioned the degree to which climate change is human-caused. A number of Republican presidential hopefuls have, like Pawlenty, backed away from climate concern in the past year as skepticism has come into vogue in the Tea Party camp. Huntsman, who’s been out of the country and out of the spotlight since heading to Beijing in August 2009, has not backtracked — at least not yet.

In 2007, Huntsman brought his state into the Western Climate Initiative, the only Republican governor other than California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger to do so. In 2008, he set a goal for Utah to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2005 levels by 2020. His climate activism ticked off the heavily Republican state legislature, which hit Huntsman with a resolution calling on him to back out of the WCI, but the state’s heavily Republican electorate didn’t seem to mind, as it reelected Huntsman in November 2008 with 78 percent of the vote.

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Huntsman appeared in an Environmental Defense Action Fund ad in late 2007, saying, “Now it’s time for Congress to act by capping greenhouse-gas pollution.” In January 2009, he said he found it “enormously frustrating” that Republicans had not been working toward a national climate policy. “We would not need the Western Climate Initiative if it were not for the foot-dragging nature of Congress,” he said. “If Republicans had identified this problem earlier and tackled it aggressively, we would all be working together.”  

When Huntsman resigned from the governorship to become ambassador to China, Marc Heileson of the Sierra Club’s Utah office lamented that the state was losing “a national leader in the world’s most important environmental issue.”

Huntsman carried his call for climate action into his ambassadorship, saying that one of his top goals would be collaborating with China on climate solutions:

We have entered an era in which all nations are called upon to work together to address the urgent problem of global climate change. The United States and China should be part of the solution, and collaboration on clean energy and greater energy efficiency offer a real opportunity to deepen the overall U.S.-China relationship. U.S. agencies have been encouraging their counterparts in China to expand cooperation on clean energy and other emission-reducing activities and to advance the international climate change negotiations. As Utah’s Governor, I have been deeply involved in exploring clean energy options for the Western States. During my chairmanship of the Western Governors’ Association, we focused specifically on the global nature of climate change, working directly with China and other major carbon emitters on this critical issue. If confirmed, I will continue my personal interest in working with China to identify and take action in areas that are mutually beneficial and which promote low-carbon economic growth in ways that are consistent with our trade and investment policies.

The political climate (ahem) is much different now than it was in mid-2009. If Huntsman decides to make a run for the Republican presidential nomination, will he distinguish himself from his competitors by sticking to his guns and insisting that climate change is a real problem that needs urgent action? Or will he follow the herd and make mealymouthed noises about uncertain science and the economic apocalypse that cap-and-trade would bring on?

UPDATE, 5/12/11: We’re hearing mealymouthed noises. In his first big media interview since giving up his post as ambassador to China, Huntsman told Time that the Western Climate Initiative “hasn’t worked, and our economy’s in a different place than five years ago.” For now, “this isn’t the moment” to keep trying, he said.

UPDATE, 5/17/11: Time has released excerpts of its 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.

Find out where other GOP presidential contenders stand on climate.