Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, yet another Republican who once endorsed cap-and-trade and appeared in an Environmental Defense Action Fund ad, was even less apologetic. Asked about his belief in climate change during a May 16 interview, he told Time:

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.

Romney took a similar tack during a town hall meeting on June 3. “The putative Republican presidential front-runner, eager to prove his conservative bona fides, could easily have said what he knew many in his party’s base wanted to hear,” The Washington Post observed. “Instead, the former Massachusetts governor stuck to the position he has held for many years — that he believes the world is getting warmer and that humans are contributing to that pattern.”

Romney’s comments drew a rebuke from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, who said they meant, “Bye-bye nomination.” So it is no wonder that even he and Huntsman have disavowed support for cap-and-trade.

Articles from Greenwire, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR have analyzed the Republicans’ efforts to beat a hasty retreat from past positions on climate policy. Pointing to 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain’s support for cap-and-trade, both the AP and the Monitor observed that the strategy represents a “marked turnaround” from “a time when Republicans were at the forefront of efforts to investigate - maybe even do something about - the impact of human activity on global climate.”

That is certainly overstating the case, however. Despite McCain’s support for a national cap-and-trade scheme, as well as similar regional efforts that involved a few Republican governors, the GOP has simply never been a leader on climate policy. NPR called it a “non-issue” for Republicans, and other reporting seemed to support that theory.

“The issue itself is not a particularly important issue to people,” GOP strategist and energy lobbyist Michael McKenna told Greenwire. “It is a surrogate, a totem for how you feel about large government versus small government, or general willingness to accept the perceived wisdom of the mainstream for a whole bunch of things.”

In the same story, Marc Morano, who runs a website that claims global warming is a hoax, predicted that no candidate would raise the issue of climate policy voluntarily. By way of retort, David Jenkins, vice president for government and political affairs at Republicans for Environmental Protection, said that silence would be a mistake, and pointed to a voter survey his group helped carry out last spring, which showed strong support within the party for “a national energy policy boosting domestic energy production and capping carbon emissions.”

Whatever the case, the onus is clearly on reporters to broach climate change, and they very well should. But it will almost certainly be more fruitful for them to also pursue a line of questioning focused on the specifics of energy policy. The Republican candidates have already demonstrated eagerness to bring up oil and gas drilling, attempts to capture and store carbon from coal burning, nuclear power, and even, to a lesser extent, renewables.

There are plenty of ways for journalists to asking more probing questions about how candidates’ targets for the country’s energy mix square with their goals for job-creation, national security, public health, and yes, environmental protection. The local journalists at the debate in New Hampshire did an exemplary job of framing their queries in the context of regional power concerns. GOP candidates may not want to address climate change directly, but energy is the obvious and effective end-around.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.