Jon Huntsman: The GOP's Lonely Climate Hawk

It may have hastened his fall in the Republican primary, but Huntsman is still pushing climate change. A harder line on big oil and corporate lobbyists.

Jon Huntsman's most famous tweet is also the one that killed his presidential campaign — or so the failed candidate was told by critics after withdrawing from the Republican primary last January following a game-over third-place finish in New Hampshire.

"To be clear," the tweet read, "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

The statement was crafted by Huntsman and two staffers on August 11, 2011, on a campaign stop in California during the former Utah governor's short-lived bid for the presidency. Within one week, it was retweeted 3,600 times — more than a year later, the figure stands today at 5,500.

"There was a lot of blowback from different corners," Huntsman said in an interview Monday afternoon at BuzzFeed's New York office. "People said to me, 'Remember that tweet you sent out? That's what did you in.'"

Huntsman's affirmation of climate change was haughtily dismissed by many Republicans, who objected to both the substance of the tweet, and what they took as a condescending tone. The other side, meanwhile, feverishly retweeted it, taking partisan pleasure in seeing one of their foes turn on his own party.

The tweet was precipitated by what Huntsman called "a level of frustration with the nonsense that was taking place in the early debates."

"I felt that it was important to remind a lot of Republican voters who care and a lot of independent voters who care, that there is a candidate who does believe in science," he said. "It's who I am. I can't pretend to be somebody otherwise."

Huntsman — who became co-chairman this month of "No Labels," a bipartisan group that held an all-day conference in New York City Monday — says he remains committed to the notion that climate change is real, and that the Republican Party needs to embrace "the mainstream science."

It's a line similar to one he used during a 2011 primary debate at the Reagan Library in California, when asked whether the Republican Party was "anti-science." Huntsman treaded carefully at the time — peppering his answer with asides like, "all I'm saying is..." — but he insisted that their comments on climate flew "in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said."

More than a year later, Huntsman's views seem unchanged — if not stronger.

He made the off-handed reference to "99 out of 100 climate scientists" — his refrain from the primary altered just slightly from 98 to 99 — as if he'd become one more scientist sure that the planet was warming.

Still, Huntsman said not all Republicans would embrace climate change as a man-made phenomenon. "Some will some won't," he said, "but I think that the driving philosophy should be a willingness to defer to scientists."

Huntsman, notably, took a harder line on corporate lobbyists and big oil companies that he argued give Washington lawmakers "compelling reasons to go with the flow."

"Corporate lobbies are always going to have a tendency to argue that which is in their long-term financial interest," said Huntsman. "Whether it's big oil companies, which we should be skeptical of, or whether it's big defense contractors who are going to want the mainstream status quo."

"It's a constituency, and when there's a constituency, money can be raised and organizing can be done," he said. "That's all fine until science proves us otherwise — you wake up to a 73-degree day in Washington D.C. and New York City in the middle of January and you say, 'There's probably something going on.'"

Huntsman also applauded a growing student-led movement to urge colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies.

"I think it's a good thing, and I can tell you, as serving on some big corporate boards, that when things like that happen, it's taken seriously," said Huntsman.

"You can move the need from a policy standpoint by taking action. Leave it up to kids on the campuses to do what they think is right, and in many cases, you'll find that they're ahead of the curve in terms of policy," he said.

But Huntsman's views on the "mainstream science" still make him an outlier in a party often bent on relegating environmental causes to the backburner, if not denying their legitimacy altogether.

Climate change is mentioned just once in the GOP platform — cited as an example of Obama's "failed national security strategy."

"Climate change shouldn't be left in the political lane," Huntsman said. "Elected officials don't know a whole lot about the subject matter."

Huntsman's role as one of the GOP's only climate hawks isn't new. As early as 2006, during his first term as Utah governor, Huntsman announced a state goal to increase energy efficiency by 20 percent in 2015. A year later, Utah joined a regional cap-and-trade program — the Western Climate Initiative — under Huntsman's leadership.

Huntsman's record on climate is, for some, one reason the former governor is often dismissed on the right as a darling of the Democratic party. His new role at "No Labels" is likely to solidify that perception. Huntsman and his Democratic counterpart, Senator Joe Manchin, both wore gold ties on Monday for the debut of the bipartisan group. No more red for Huntsman.

The day before he wrote the tweet about global warming, Huntsman's top strategist, John Weaver, had told the Washington Post that the GOP wouldn't win against Obama if it became "the anti-science party."

But Huntsman seems to acknowledge — without a trace of regret for the tweet, or the beliefs behind it — that it was his view on issues like climate change that helped propel him, quickly, to his loss in the primary.

As his interview comes to a close, Huntsman looks down a print-out of the climate change tweet, lying on the table like a vestige of his failed campaign. It's the first time anybody in the room has seen a tweet in ink.

He compares it all to a spread Huntsman's family did for Vogue magazine in August 2011 — photographs by Annie Leibovitz; headline, "THE OUTSIDER."

Huntsman got a lot of blowback for that one, too.

"It just sent signals to all the wrong corners of the party that we were deferring to the liberal mainstream," he says. "Next time Vogue comes knocking on your door..."

On his way out, he folds up the piece of paper — the tweet — and tucks it in his back pocket. "I won't throw this away just yet."

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