By Elaine Magliaro
Yesterday, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) reported that officials of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had “been ordered not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails, or reports…” That’s what FCIR had learned from “former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records that it had obtained.”
Tristam Korten of FCIR said that the state policy “goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department that has about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.” Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, said, “We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability.’ That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.” Another former DEP employee, Kristina Trotta, said that a supervisor had told her not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” during a 2014 staff meeting. Trotta added, “We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact.”
Terence McCoy (Washington Post), who reported on the story, wrote: “It is one of the profound ironies of climate change that a state besieged by its effects — where coastal islands face existential threats and daily floods render major thoroughfares difficult to navigate — is also populated by powerful politicians who express deep suspicion of the relevant science.” McCoy said that Governor Rick “Scott’s aversion to discussions of man-made climate change has been brought to bear on a department charged with protecting a state that already exhibits many of the changes scientists predict will overtake other coastal regions.”
In his report, Korten wrote: “This unwritten policy went into effect after Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011 and appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. as the DEP’s director…Gov. Scott, who won a second term in November, has repeatedly said he is not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Vinyard has since resigned. Neither he nor his successor, Scott Steverson, would comment for this report.”
This “unwritten policy” was reportedly “‘distributed verbally statewide’ and has ‘affected’ how one of the largest departments in the state, armed with a $1.4 billion budget and 3,200 employees, does business.”
Korten told the The Washington Post that the “irony is clearly apparent. Florida is a peninsula with 1,200 miles of coastline, and when it comes to climate change, we’re the canary in the coalmine. And we’re relying on the state government to protect us and to plan for these changes.”
Korten said that “Florida is the region most susceptible to the effects of global warming in this country, according to scientists. Sea-level rise alone threatens 30 percent of the state’s beaches over the next 85 years.”
A spokesperson with the governor’s office wrote in an email that “There’s no policy on this.” Korten said, however, that “four former DEP employees from offices around the state[s] say the order was well known and distributed verbally statewide.”
One former DEP employee who worked in Tallahassee during Scott’s first term in office, and asked not to be identified because of an ongoing business relationship with the department, said staffers were warned that using the terms in reports would bring unwanted attention to their projects.
“We were dealing with the effects and economic impact of climate change, and yet we can’t reference it,” the former employee said.
Former DEP attorney Byrd said it was clear to him this was more than just semantics.
“It’s an indication that the political leadership in the state of Florida is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change presents,” Byrd said.
Katie Valentine (ThinkProgress) said that Ben Kirtman, “professor of atmospheric science at the University of Miami who’s been in contact with members of the DEP and other state agencies in the past, wasn’t surprised by the report.” Kirtman told ThinkProgress “that he’d spoken with employees of other Florida agencies…who had said that they, too, had been told not to talk about climate change in their professional capacity. So before he read the FCIR report, he knew that this censorship was likely occurring, at least at some agencies.” He added, “The first thing they said to me was, ‘Oh we’re not allowed to talk about that.’”
But Kirtman said he thinks there’s been a “concerted effort” from Gov. Scott’s administration to prevent climate change from being a major part of the state government’s discussion. Gov. Scott has historically avoided questions regarding climate change, saying in 2010 that he had “not been convinced” that the phenomenon was happening, but answering only “I’m not a scientist” during last year’s gubernatorial race.
Kirtman said he thinks the unofficial policy on mentioning climate change at the DEP was a political move on the part of the governor’s office.
“I believe it was a political mistake, that the Scott administration made this political calculation that they would lose political support if they allowed their administration to talk about climate change,” he said, adding that he thought Gov. Scott was following the lead of some members of Congress in trying to ignore the issue of climate change.
Terence McCoy said that if the report findings are accurate, “Florida offers a cautionary tale of how politics can bog down an urgent scientific call to action. Reports, such as one last year by the National Climate Assessment, call South Florida ‘uniquely vulnerable to Sea Level Rise. … There is an imminent threat of increased inland flooding during heavy rain events in low-lying coastal areas such as southeast Florida, where just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of storm water drainage systems to empty into the ocean.’”
McCoy said that in southern parts of Florida, “such as Miami Beach, sea rise is no longer something to debate, but something to deal with daily.” He noted that the city, “expected to spend $400 million to combat rising tides in the next five years, already has invested in a new drainage system that officials hope will keep the streets dry for the next three decades.”
But the fact that the state’s highest elected office may have reservations about climate change has outraged some local academics. “You have to start real planning, and I’ve seen absolutely none of that from the current governor,” University of Miami geologist Harold Wanless told the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. “It’s beyond ludicrous to deny using the term climate change. It’s criminal at this point.”
In Florida, Officials Ban Term ‘Climate Change’ (Florida Center for Investigative Reporting)
Florida DEP Banned From Using The Words ‘Climate Change,’ ‘Global Warming’ (Crooks and Liars)