Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. defended his reputation as an environmentalist during a speech tonight to a GOP environmental group.
"Conservation is conservative," the former Utah governor told about 200 people at a Republicans for Environmental Protection dinner in Washington. "I'm not ashamed to be a conservationist."
Added Huntsman: "I also believe that science should be driving our discussions on climate change."
His words were unremarkable, except perhaps in some Republican circles, where Huntsman's environmental views are considered outside the mainstream. He joked in his speech that members of the audience, during a pre-dinner reception, seemed somewhat surprised that he actually showed up for the event.
Huntsman has acknowledged in interviews that climate change is a reality, though he has not made the issue a major element of his 2012 campaign, and he avoided any mention of it during his 20-minute speech.
Playing down environmental issues hasn't stopped attacks from conservative critics. Outside the Capitol Hill hotel where he was speaking, a truck with an animated anti-Huntsman billboard circled the block. Apparently the work of climate-change critic Steve Milloy, it derided him as "Utah's Al Gore" and a "climate whiner."
Huntsman, who resigned this year as U.S. ambassador in Beijing, said that when he saw the billboard, "I thought, it's nice to be in the United States of America. Because, when I gave a speech in China, those protesters, for whatever reason, they never showed up."
As governor, Huntsman won strong backing from Utah environmental groups for his efforts to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions through a trading system in which power plants, factories and other sources of greenhouse gases that beat government-mandated emission caps could sell permits to companies that exceed them.
Huntsman's enthusiastic promotion of cap-and-trade included an appearance in a 2007 Environmental Defense Action Fund ad that urged Congress to cap greenhouse gas pollution. As recently as 2009, he criticized congressional "foot-dragging" on the issue.
Since then, he has reversed course. He now calls cap-and-trade the wrong solution in a sluggish economy and says it would be a drag on economic growth.
Huntsman was introduced by Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington, among the few Republicans to vote in favor of cap-and-trade legislation, which passed the Democratic-led House in 2009. (The legislation died in the Senate.) In extolling Huntsman's Utah environmental record, Reichert omitted the cap-and-trade pact that Huntsman signed with other Western governors at the time, including California's Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The dinner sponsor, Republicans for Environmental Protection, backed cap-and-trade proposals in Congress and has been sharply critical of the Republican-run House for what it has called "anti-environmental extremism."
One of its officials, David Jenkins, has argued that party leaders are out of step with most rank-and-file Republican voters when it comes to stewardship of the nation's natural resources.