By Luke Brinker
Just as prominent conservatives like George Will, Ross Douthat, Jim Pethokoukis, Michael Brendan Daugherty, and Erick Erickson started making the case that former Utah Gov. and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman deserved a second look from conservative GOP primary voters, Huntsman appears to be abandoning one of his signature ideological apostasies: his acceptance of the scientific consensus that climate change is happening, and that human activity is a prime cause.
This past summer, Huntsman denounced GOP rivals like Rick Perry for their climate skepticism, arguing that the Republicans must not become the “anti-science party.” As part of his willingness to uphold – gasp! – science, Huntsman also made clear he accepted the theory of evolution. That this was a sign of his reasonableness and “moderation” within the GOP says much about the state of the increasingly anti-intellectual party.
Huntsman isn’t making a play for socially conservative Iowa, so he’s standing by his defense of evolution (so far, at least). But in an appearance before the conservative Heritage Foundation yesterday, he walked back his comments on climate change’s anthropogenic causes:
“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 claims there’s nothing inconsistent about his position. Indeed, I noted
last summer that despite Huntsman’s pro-science stance on climate change, he had yet to endorse any specific remedies to the problem. But at the time, Huntsman’s argument was that the US needed to wait out the poor economy before implementing policies to address climate change. Now, he’s recycling right-wing tropes about how climate change is a conspiracy hatched at the University of East Anglia (which, it happens, is in England, not Scotland). Not only had this been thoroughly debunked
by the time Huntsman announced his acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change, but subsequent inquiries have reaffirmed
that the scientists in question were innocent of any malpractice. It’s unclear why Huntsman suddenly wants to revisit the underlying science – or, to frame it in Huntsman’s own terms, to suddenly lend credence to the one percent of scientists who part with the rest of their profession.
Huntsman’s climate flip-flop undercuts his unique appeal within the GOP field as a moderate conservative in tune with facts and data. In spite of his recent favorable treatment by the conservative commentariat, Huntsman stands no chance of winning the GOP nomination in 2012, when ideological vitriol is still in strong demand from the Tea Party base. But in the event that the GOP lost to President Obama next year, Huntsman was poised to make a strong bid in 2016, when he could make the case that it was time for the Republicans to discard their hard-line Know-Nothingism and at least pretend to inhabit the reality-based community. He’d be conservative enough to succeed, considering his support for Paul Ryan’s Medicare privatization scheme, his tax-cutting record as governor of Utah, his pro-gun stance, and his strongly anti-abortion record. But he’d also lay the groundwork for GOP success among socially tolerant, eco-conscious Millennials. The New Republic
reported in June that among Huntsman’s most die-hard supporters were college students attracted by his support for gay civil unions. Support for strong measures to curtail climate change would only have enhanced his appeal among such voters.
It’s especially ironic that Huntsman’s U-turn comes less than a week after his campaign released a devastating ad
attacking Mitt Romney for his own position changes (climate change being one of them, it turns out). The ad set up a contrast that’s been a running theme of Huntsman’s campaign. There’s the insecure, pandering Romney, whose stances shift depending on the prevailing political currents, juxtaposed against the comfortable-in-his-own-skin, consistent, truth-telling Huntsman. After Huntsman’s likely futile attempt to woo conservatives at Heritage yesterday, that contrast has lost its resonance.