RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
The field of Republican presidential hopefuls just got bigger. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman announced his candidacy this morning, with the Statue of Liberty as his backdrop. Huntsman holds moderate views on immigration and same-sex civil unions, and he served in the Obama administration as the ambassador to China. As governor of Utah, he led efforts to control greenhouse gases. But now, just like the other GOP candidates, he's staying away from the issue of climate change.
NPR's Scott Horsley reports on the shift in the political climate.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Four years ago, Jon Huntsman joined other Western governors in a regional effort to limit greenhouse gases. Huntsman defended the idea of capping emissions and trading pollution permits in a 2008 debate recorded by KCPW.
Mr. JON HUNTSMAN (Former Ambassador, China): Until we put a value on carbon, we're never going to be able to get serious about dealing with climate change longer term. Now, putting a value on carbon either suggests that you go to a carbon tax or you get a cap-and-trade system.
HORSLEY: Fast-forward to this year. Huntsman still agrees with the scientific consensus that climate change is a problem, and probably man-made. But he told Time Magazine with a weak economy, now is not the time to be pushing cap and trade.
Huntsman's GOP rival Mitt Romney has also backed away from cap and trade after supporting the idea years ago. Romney made his opposition clear in a New Hampshire town hall meeting earlier this month.
Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts): A lot of people have talked about cap and trade. Look, we cannot, as America, enter into an agreement that causes our energy to become more expensive if we let the big emitters of the future like China and Brazil off the hook.
HORSLEY: And Tim Pawlenty has backpedaled furiously on climate change, apologizing during a Fox News debate for supporting cap and trade when he was governor of Minnesota.
Mr. TIM PAWLENTY (Former Republican Governor, Minnesota): I was wrong. It was a mistake. And I'm sorry. It's ham-fisted. It's going to be harmful to the economy.
HORSLEY: Republican leaders' interest in global warming has cooled considerably since 2008, when John McCain was the party's standard-bearer and a strong advocate for capping greenhouse gases.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington.
HORSLEY: McCain's position was not universal in the GOP, but it wasn't a huge stretch, either. After all, the idea of controlling emissions with a market-based trading system has a Republican pedigree. The first President Bush used cap and trade to combat acid rain. In 2008, the only big difference between McCain's plan and the Democrats was how much to rein in greenhouse gases: 65 percent or 80 percent.
To Navin Nayak of the League of Conservation Voters, that now feels like the good old days.
Mr. NAVIN NAYAK (League of Conservation Voters): Everyone agreed that the sun rose in the East and it set in the West. And suddenly, we emerge four years later with a field of Republicans that are trying to tell us that no, the sun actually rises in the West, and we're not sure if it sets.
HORSLEY: Some Republican White House hopefuls - notably Michele Bachmann -question the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are likely a big cause of climate change.
Representative MICHELE BACHMANN (Republican, Minnesota): Carbon dioxide is natural. It occurs in earth. Carbon dioxide is not a harmful gas. It is a harmless gas.
HORSLEY: Environmentalist Nayak gives Huntsman and Romney some credit for at least acknowledging the science behind climate change. But he says simply admitting there's a problem is not enough.
Mr. NAYAK: It would be like a presidential candidate saying, yes, the debt is a serious crisis, but I'm not going to introduce any plan to actually deal with it.
HORSLEY: But it's not just GOP candidates who've changed their tune in recent years.
Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (Director, Pew Research Center): The issue has become politicized.
HORSLEY: Andrew Kohut, who heads the Pew Research Center in Washington, points to a sharp drop in the number of Americans who think climate change is even happening, let alone a serious problem.
Five years ago, 77 percent of the public believed in global warming. Today, that figure is less than 60 percent. And only about a third of the public thinks man-made carbon emissions are to blame.
Mr. KOHUT: And most of that decline has occurred among Republicans and independents. The partisan gap is huge.
HORSLEY: Of course, these are the primary voters Republican candidates need to appeal to. And they've been encouraged in their skepticism of climate change by fossil fuel interests, which have bankrolled an aggressive campaign against cap and trade. Even among Democrats, fighting global warming is not a high priority. So it's little wonder, in tough economic times, GOP hopefuls have taken the public's temperature and given this issue a pass.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.