Jon Huntsman Goes Squishy on Climate Change

Is the moderate Republican candidate making a late attempt to pander to his party's base? If so, he's not very good at it

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Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman has spent most of his presidential campaign being liberals' favorite conservative. His defenses of evolution and global warming represented a refusal to go against his beliefs to cater to his party's base, even if it meant his presidential bid would go nowhere. 

But on Tuesday, Huntsman sounded a different note. Asked about man-made climate change at a Heritage Foundation talk, Huntsman said he needed to see more scientific information before he would act.

"I don't know -- I'm not a scientist, nor am I a physicist," he said to a question that asked whether he believed global warming was human-caused and if so what he would propose to do about it. "But I would defer to science in that discussion. And I would say that the scientific community owes us more in terms of a better description or explanation about what might lie beneath all of this. But there's not enough information right now to be able to formulate policies in terms of addressing it overall."

Huntsman added that it was "a global issue" and said the U.S. can't afford to "unilaterally disarm our economy or job creators in this country."

A little later, Huntsman was pressed on whether he was being inconsistent. He insisted he wasn't, but he seemed to be arguing with himself.

First, he asserted that, as a non-scientist, he'd trust those who are scientists in this area, and he acknowledged that "99 percent of members of the Academy of Sciences have weighed in on the subject matter." But he proceeded to criticize the overwhelming scientific consensus as being based on potentially skewed information, referencing "one university over in Scotland." (Multiple investigations have found that the "Climategate" emails from the University of East Anglia did not undercut the rationale for man-made climate change.) 

Huntsman then trotted out the analogy that if 99 percent of scientists told you you have cancer, "you'd pretty much say the scientific community has spoken, let's generally respect what they have to say about it." But where that parallel would seem to argue in favor of action on global warming, Huntsman tried to make it mean the opposite: "If there's some interruption or disconnect in terms of what other scientists have to say, then let the debate play out within the scientific community."

This dodge -- that the jury is still out on climate change and we shouldn't do anything about it until we know for sure -- is precisely what Huntsman was criticizing when he called out Rick Perry for his climate skepticism. Perry had said that the U.S. shouldn't spend money on "a scientific theory that has not been proven"; Huntsman lashed back that the Republican Party couldn't become the "anti-science party." At the time, he cited "98 out of 100 climate scientists" and the National Academy of Sciences as the basis of his conviction that humans contribute to climate change.

The scientific evidence hasn't changed in the last couple of months, but Huntsman's view of it apparently has. Conveniently, his new line comes just in time for his renewed attempt to woo the conservative media. But it might be difficult to convince his party when Huntsman doesn't sound convinced himself.

Image credit: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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