PARK CITY — Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert challenged the reality of climate change during a Western Governors' Association panel discussion Monday on combatting global warming.
Herbert, who sat quietly through most of the discussions during the past two days, spoke up after presentations that included the statement that the debate on climate change was over.
"I've heard people argue on both sides of the issue, people I have a high regard for," Herbert said. "People say man's impact is minimal, if at all, so it appears to me the science is not necessarily conclusive."
His comments drew a smattering of applause from the audience at the association's three-day meeting, which ends today. The governors, who have backed a resolution urging regional and national efforts to deal with global climate change, did not join in.
Herbert is not yet a member of the association, but he will be after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is confirmed by the U.S. Senate as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China and resigns as governor. Huntsman is a strong supporter of addressing climate change and has been criticized for that by some of his fellow Republicans in Utah.
Herbert acknowledged he's new to the association's discussions and said he didn't want to be contrary. But he said polls have shown the public is divided on the issue.
"What are we doing to bring people together?" Herbert asked. "Is there a hidden agenda out there? Help me understand the science."
He had stepped out of the discussion during a presentation by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu on the latest research. "The indications are not only that the climate is changing but is changing more than what were thought to be doom and gloom predictions," Chu said, warning the future could be bleak.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who is taking over chairmanship of the association from Huntsman, said many Westerners do think climate change is "a bunch of hooey."
Schweitzer said that a statement made during the discussion by Nick Bridge, British counselor for global issues —? that the debate was settled — might be true in Europe but not in the United States.
Bridge responded to Herbert that while it's "not surprising the public is still working through" the issue, many eminent scientists "almost unequivocally agree" on the threat. He suggested Herbert see dealing with climate change as taking a risk management approach.
Think of it, Bridge said, like being warned you're "driving towards a cliff at high speed and have a 30 percent chance of brake failure. Would you get in the car? Nobody would get in the car."
The closest any of the participants came to talking about any disagreement with climate change was U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who said farmers and ranchers are "extremely skeptical of all this" because of their concern over costs. "I think we have an argument to make," Vilsack said.
Nancy Sutley, who heads Obama's White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the new president is already taking on the economic and security threat posed by climate change.
"Washington for decades has hemmed and hawed, wringing its hands about energy policy," Sutley said. Obama's federal stimulus programs, she said, include efforts to develop renewable resources and take other measures to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Herbert told the Deseret News after the discussion he wasn't convinced because all he heard was "the science is conclusive, the science is over. The debate is done. I'm saying, 'Based on what?' " He said he's concerned about increasing energy costs to deal with climate change because it may yet turn out not to be happening.
Utahns, Herbert said, agree with him. "I think people are confused," he said. "Most people are ignorant of the issue. They all say it sounds good until all of a sudden you've got $4-a-gallon gasoline."
He did not rule out pulling out of the controversial Western climate initiative signed by Huntsman and six other regional governors.
"Not right now, I don't," Herbert said when asked if he had any plans to end Utah's participation in the initiative. "Anything's a possibility. A new administration — all things are on the table, I guess. But again I'm going to be very slow to make radical changes. I'm going to listen, and I'm going to learn."
Schweitzer told the Deseret News that Herbert's position would not affect the governors' efforts already under way on climate change. He said he believed Herbert would still support measures that create jobs and encourage energy efficiencies.
Herbert told a lobbyist who approached him at the meeting that when it comes to energy issues, "regardless of the debate on the science, I'm a capitalist."
Huntsman, who has stayed away from public appearances pending his still unscheduled confirmation hearing, did briefly attend Monday's meeting to introduce his close friend, World Bank President Robert Zoellick.