It is a given that if Jon Huntsman is going to win the Republican presidential nomination he’s going to have to prove that the “moderate” label that many in the media have hung on him isn’t accurate. But the question of just how moderate Huntsman actually is may have gotten a little stickier after the publication of an interview with the former Utah governor published in Time magazine that’s going viral in the political blogosphere.

After a discussion of his support for civil unions (but not gay marriage), Time’s Melinda Henneberger asked Huntsman if he believed in climate change. She received this reply:

This is an issue that ought to be answered by the scientific community; I’m not a meteorologist. All I know is 90 percent of the scientists say climate change is occurring. If 90 percent of the oncological community said something was causing cancer we’d listen to them. I respect science and the professionals behind the science so I tend to think it’s better left to the science community—though we can debate what that means for the energy and transportation sectors.

The followup to that exchange established that Huntsman had previously supported carbon cap and trade schemes but no longer did so solely because he felt that after the 2008 economic downturn, they were no longer feasible. So does that make Huntsman an Al Gore clone that has no chance to become the Republican nominee? Not exactly.

There is nothing that controversial about saying the climate is changing. Over the course of recorded history, we know that climates have shifted, sometimes in extreme fashion. After all, in Leif Erickson’s time, Greenland was actually green though pre-industrial human activity almost certainly had nothing to do with it. The question is, do you, like Gore, accept as a matter of faith, alarmist warming predictions and that, also as a matter of faith, humans are the ones who are responsible for the problem? Those who do so are more likely than not to support, at least in principle, the sort of radical cut backs in emissions that would cripple the global economy and place restrictions on economic freedom as well as personal liberty.

So it’s possible for Huntsman to talk his way out of this with conservatives without being completely Gored in their eyes. But Huntsman’s past support for cap and trade and his unwillingness to see the question as one of economic freedom versus top-down overregulation makes him a hard sell for the GOP core. His response was also a far cry from the full-scale mea culpa that Tim Pawlenty has adopted to apologize for his past support of such schemes.

It’s true that John McCain was a supporter of global warming prevention measures and still won the nomination in 2008. But McCain had a resume line that appealed strongly to conservatives—the one that said “war hero”—that Huntsman and other so-called moderates running now lack.

Voters in Republican primaries and caucuses are overwhelmingly conservative and will not nominate what in an earlier time we might have termed a “country club” Republican whose stands on social issues and global warming fit in better with NPR listeners than Fox News watchers. If Huntsman is serious about wanting to be the GOP nominee, he is going to have to start thinking and talking like a conservative. Otherwise, he might as well have stayed in Beijing.

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