Here’s another sign climate change may become an issue that could matter — a bit, at least — in the 2014 campaigns. On the same day her Dem opponent attacked her as a climate denier, Terri Lynn Land, the GOP Senate candidate in Michigan, quickly rushed out a statement claiming that “climate change is absolutely a reality.”

Land’s statement, however, didn’t take a position on whether it is caused by human activity.

And as it turns out, this is the position of multiple GOP Senate candidates: They acknowledge climate change is real, but, to varying degrees, are fudging on whether humans are causing it.

There’s Land, who said this yesterday about the new EPA rules: “Climate change is absolutely a reality and we must continue our work to protect the environment but this is not the right plan to implement in the middle of our Michigan comeback.”

There’s Thom Tillis, the GOP Senate candidate in North Carolina, whose spokesman says that Tillis believes “the Earth’s climate obviously changes over time,” without specifying Tillis’ views of humans’ role in making that happen.

There’s Cory Gardner, the Republican Senate candidate in Colorado, who has said: “I think the climate is changing, but I don’t believe humans are causing that change to the extent that’s been in the news.”

There’s Joni Ernst, the Republican Senate candidate in Iowa. When asked for her views on the topic in an interview with the Des Moines Register editorial board, she said: “Yes, we do see climates changes but I have not seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made.” She added that we’ve seen “cyclic changes in weather…throughout the course of history,” and suggested it’s uncertain “what impact is man-made.”

Of course, even as they acknowledge climate change is a reality, many Republicans are blasting the new EPA rules designed to do something about it, as Land does above. In theory that would seem to provide Dems an opening to pillory their opponents as anti-science and so imprisoned by ideology that they are unwilling or unable to offer solutions to major challenges facing the country — challenges even they are prepared to acknowledge exist.

There’s been a bit of aggressiveness from Dems along these lines. In Michigan Dem Rep. Gary Peters has blasted Land, suggesting that her climate denialism renders her incapable of addressing a pressing crisis. In North Carolina Dem Senator Kay Hagan has done the same to Tillis, claiming: “Unlike my opponent who flatly denied the existence of climate change, I know the EPA’s ability to responsibly regulate greenhouse gas emissions is key to protecting our environment for future generations.” But overall, there has been — and will probably continue to be — little of this.

You frequently heard it said that climate change is not a motivating issue for voters, and environmental advocates would be the first to admit they have not yet succeeded in changing this. But environmentalists are practically screaming in the ears of Democratic candidates that the EPA rules give them a big opening on this issue, and they are citing new polling from Hart Research in the swing states of Virginia and Pennsylvania, commissioned by the League of Conservation Voters, to underscore the point:

In both states, 61% of voters were found to support new power plant rules which the EPA proposed on Monday, even after hearing the arguments for and against. The proposed rules would mandate that U.S. power plants reduce their carbon emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

“We are clearly in a new political moment in the fight against climate change,” said LCV adviser Bill Burton, a former Obama administration spokesperson, on a Thursday conference call with reporters. The Hart Research poll, he said, shows that “Republican leadership are not only wrong on policy, but the politics are absolutely atrocious for them.”

Many Dem candidates are unlikely to follow this advice, particularly in red states, for the reasons I reported on here. But there are signs climate will get more attention than usual this cycle. And in the scattered places where Dems do choose to engage the issue, we’ll likely see a GOP response that does suggest the politics of it are shifting. Terri Land’s partial embrace of the reality of climate change could be the first glimpse of more to come.

For an idea of what this issue could look like if Dems engaged it more directly, framing it as a matter of public health and clean air –  thus breaking out of the usual coal-versus-environment frame that has long characterized the debate — check out this new ad on the new EPA rules from the American Heart and Lung Association:

 

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.