Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and current Republican presidential candidate, earned accolades from environmental advocates earlier this year for denouncing his fellow presidential contenders -- chiefly Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann -- for their regressive views on matters of science, including human-induced global warming.
"When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution -- " said Huntsman during an early September debate. "All I'm saying is that in order for the Republican party to win, we can't run from science."
Now it appears that Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China who has been trailing badly in the polls, is recalibrating his own thoughts on the science behind global warming.
At an event hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation on Tuesday, Huntsman was asked whether he believed that human beings are "significantly or primarily contributing to the earth's warming climate," and if so, what policies he would put in place to address the issue.
"The scientific community owes us more in terms of a better description or explanation about what might lie beneath all of this," Huntsman responded, "but there's not enough information right now to be able to formulate policies in terms of addressing it overall -- primarily because it's a global issue. We can enact policies here, but I wouldn't want to unilaterally disarm as a country. I wouldn't want to hinder job creators during a time when our economy is flat."
Tim Miller, a spokesman for Huntsman, said in an email, "Governor Huntsman's comments today are consistent with his view that he trusts the body of science on global warming, but there's not global consensus and we can't disarm or hurt our job creators since this is a global problem."
Huntsman's finessing of his message comes against the backdrop of global climate talks in Durban, South Africa, where delegates are struggling to find a way forward on a variety of proposals to curb greenhouse gas emissions and help poor nations deal with the impacts of climate change. Chief among the obstacles to progress in Durban is lack of consensus among major emitters of the industrialized world -- principally the United States -- and the rising industrial powers of the developing world, including India, Brazil, South Africa and China.
Among other things, U.S. negotiators want to establish a clear, unconditional pathway for countries like China to come under emissions restrictions before any talk of a long-term climate treaty can move forward.
"When you've got other nations that are major emitters, and if they not willing to play by the same playbook," Huntsman said Tuesday, "then you've got a real problem."
Later in the discussion, a reporter asked Huntsman whether he supported the current U.S. goal, which President Obama endorsed at the Copenhagen climate conference two years ago, of reducing domestic emissions by 17 percent over 2005 levels by 2020.
"Our goals need to follow some recognition of science by all the major emitters, and I'm not sure that's the case today, and therefore our goals become a little problematic," Huntsman replied. "We can pursue goals and have remedies in terms of how we're gong to achieve those goals, but if we're reading from a different scientific text than the Chinese or than, say, the Indians, then I think we're going to come up with different policy fixes that might make our own journey more onerous than that the Chinese might be taking, and it might debilitate economic recovery in this country or hobble job creators and I think that would be a very bad outcome."
China has recently signaled that, with some preconditions, it would be willing to commit to a binding treaty that comes into force after 2020, though it remains unclear whether this will advance negotiations in Durban.
Substantial scientific evidence does suggest that the planet is warming and that human beings are contributing to it.
A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, reviewed the publication and citation data of 1,372 of the globe's most frequently published climate researchers. It found that virtually all -- between 97 and 98 percent -- of them were found to support the basic notion of anthropogenic climate change, or climate change that is attributable to human activity.
The basic science is also accepted and supported by most of the nation's most venerable scientific institutions, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Geological Society of America, among others.
In August, Huntsman even invoked the National Academy of Sciences in scolding the Republican Party for embracing anti-science positions on matters like evolution and climate change.
"The minute that the Republican Party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem," he told an interviewer. "We lose a whole lot of people who would otherwise allow us to win the election in 2012. When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Sciences has said about what is causing climate change and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position."