Against all political intuition, Republican candidates could win votes by taking "green" positions on the controversy over climate change, according to new poll results released Tuesday.
Voters tend to favor political candidates who believe that humans have contributed to global warming and that the nation should take action by switching from fossil fuels to solar and wind power, according to Stanford University's national survey.
The team of researchers at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment found that by taking a "green position" on climate, candidates of either party can gain the votes of some citizens while not alienating others.
"Candidates who took a green position gained votes, and candidates who took not-green positions lost votes," the study concluded.
A green position is one where a candidate believes Earth's temperature has been gradually increasing over the last century, that climate change is at least partly caused by human activity and that government action should be taken to control emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases that trap the planet's heat.
The latest round of national research is based on telephone interviews with 1,000 participants conducted last November. The participants were asked how they would vote for a hypothetical Senate candidate in their state based on a series of issues, including climate change.
Leading the Stanford research team was Jon Krosnick, a professor of communication and political science, who has been looking at public attitudes on environmental issues since the late 1990s. This survey was designed to determine the extent to which politicians' positions on climate change might win or lose votes. Climate change is not an issue that would generally determine a voter's choice, but it could influence it.
Bruce Cain, professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley and executive director of the UC Washington Center, said he thinks the study's conclusion "is right."
Cain expects climate change to come up in presidential and congressional races.
"If the spotlight turns to a global warming issue, it looks at the moment that there's no heavy penalty or reward that will be attached to taking a position one way or another on the issue," he said.
"On taxes and the economy, the Republicans are singing one note. There's no variation among candidates. The only way to win is by shining the light on the differences," he added.
In the full national sample, taking a green position on climate won votes for the Senate candidate, and taking a not-green position lost votes. Seventy-seven percent of respondents said they would vote for the candidate who took a green position. Sixty-five percent said they would vote for the candidate who was silent on climate change, while 48 percent said they would vote for the candidate who took the not-green position.
According to the study, Democratic candidates who wish to attract Republican voters during general elections have nothing to gain or lose by the positions they take on climate, leaving them free to take green positions to attract Independents and perhaps to inspire Democrats to participate in the election, the study said.
"Republican candidates have even more to gain by taking green positions on climate," the study said, because they may attract Independents as well as woo Democratic voters in general elections, especially if their Democratic opponents remain silent on climate.
In the not-green position, the science of climate change was described as a hoax on the American people, and support was given to sticking with coal and oil as the dominant energy sources with no government controls on emissions.
In the green position, there was a statement that global warming has been occurring over the past 100 years mainly because of the burning of fossil fuels, and it should be stopped with a switch from oil and coal to renewables such as wind and solar and more energy-efficient cars.
Among Republicans, taking a green position caused a small decline in intentions to vote for the candidate, as did taking a not-green position.
Among Democrats, however, 74 percent said they would vote for the candidate who espoused the green position compared with 53 percent for the candidate silent on the issue and 37 percent for the one with a not-green position.
Independents closely resembled Democrats, with 63 percent saying they would vote for the candidate who was silent on climate change, 79 percent for the one who took the green position and 44 percent for the candidate with the not-green position.
President Obama has endorsed a green position but has been criticized by environmentalists for not taking a leadership role on mandatory controls on greenhouse gases in a Congress dominated by opponents. Instead, his administration has focused on increasing energy efficiency and investments in non-polluting renewables and clean cars.
Opponents of taking action on global warming will point to former Massachusetts governor and 2012 candidate for President Mitt Romney's recent statement that he accepts the scientific view held by the bulk of the world's climate scientists that human activity is contributing to global warming.
But Cain said Romney "is not going to be hurt badly by taking a more moderate view on environmental issues, especially on greenhouse gases."
Romney and Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China, are the only Republican presidential candidates thus far who have said they believe the science. Neither one, however, has offered any plans or solutions to curbing greenhouse gases, according to representatives of the League of Conservation Voters, a nonprofit that promotes support for environmental issues among candidates.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, (R-Minn.), Sen. Rick Santorum, (R-Pa.) and Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor, criticize the science as flawed and deny a human connection.
The Stanford researchers also released a separate poll conducted in Florida, Maine and Massachusetts in July 2010, which reached findings similar to the national poll.
Also, a year ago, the Stanford team released poll findings indicating that three out of four Americans believe that "the Earth has been gradually warming due primarily or at least partly as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it."
Eight-six percent of the participants said they wanted the federal government to limit the air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions from businesses. Fourteen percent said the United States should not take action to combat global warming unless other major industrial countries like China and India do so as well.
Several questions in the 2010 survey addressed the "Climategate" controversy, which brought allegations of flawed science by researchers contributing to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Stanford researchers found that 71 percent of participants said they trust scientists a moderate amount, a lot or completely. The number has remained virtually the same in every poll since 2006, the researchers found.
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.