Can Florida prepare for climate change without saying the words?

Florida Department of Environmental Protection workers have been banned from using terms like 'climate change' and 'global warming,' according to a new investigation.

Andrew Wardlow/The News Herald/AP
A surfer braves the cold water of the Gulf of Mexico on a foggy day in Panama City Beach, Fla., Thursday. Since 2011, the state Department of Environmental Protection employees have been banned from using that term as well as 'global warming' and 'sustainability' in their work, according to a new report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

In Florida, climate change is the global phenomenon that must not be named. Since 2011, the state Department of Environmental Protection employees have been banned from using that term as well as "global warming" and "sustainability" in their work, according to a new report.

Florida DEP employees have been restricted from using the terms in official correspondence, including in public reports and presentations as part of an "unwritten policy," which was "distributed verbally statewide," according to a Sunday report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and published by the Miami Herald. The term "sea-level rise" was similarly banned, but has since made a comeback.

The Florida DEP, one of the state's largest departments, has a $1.4 billion budget and around 3,200 employees.

The policy went into effect after Gov. Rick Scott (R) first took office in 2011, according to interviews with former DEP officials. Governor Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, had been proactive on climate change during his time in office, but FCIR noted several examples of how the issue has fallen out of the spotlight since Scott took office.

A December 2010 report on sea-level rise from the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council stated that it is "widely accepted that human activities can impact global climate patterns." The report added that "the potential risks to Florida's natural resources and our economy compel us to seek a thorough understanding of possible impacts and to provide current and future generations with the information necessary to adjust to them."

Sea-level rise "is not a science fiction scenario but a reality," the report added.

The FOCC's Annual Research Plan, put together by DEP and other state agencies, contained 15 references to climate change in its 2009-10 report – the last report published before Scott was elected – according to FCIR. In the 2014-15 edition of the report, climate change is only mentioned if it is in the title of a past report or conference. Terms like “climate drivers” and “climate-driven changes” are used instead.

In response to the FCIR report, the Florida DEP and Scott's office have responded that such a policy doesn't exist. The DEP's press secretary, Tiffany Cowie, wrote in an email to the FCIR that "the DEP does not have a policy on this." Jeri Bustamante, a spokesperson with the governor’s office, wrote in an email that "There’s no policy on this."

But multiple current and former state DEP employees suggested otherwise. While the policy may never have been committed to paper, multiple sources suggested the orders have been expressed verbally across multiple departments for years.

Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013, said they were told to not 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," Mr. Byrd told the FCIR.

Sea-level rise was another taboo subject for DEP employees as late as 2014, Kristina Trotta told FCIR. Ms. Trotta left her position as a field and administrative assistant at the DEP in January.

At a staff meeting in summer 2014, Regional Administrator Joanna Walczak told them they "were no longer allowed to use the terms 'global warming' or 'climate change' or even 'sea-level rise,' " according to Trotta.

"Sea-level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding,' " Trotta told FCIR. "We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact."

When staff protested the order, according to Trotta, "the regional administrator told us that we are the governor’s agency and this is the message from the governor’s office. And that is the message we will portray."

Scott was re-elected in November, and is one of a number of high-profile Florida politicians who have voiced skepticism over climate change in the past.

When asked last year if he was becoming less skeptical of man-made climate change, Scott replied, "Well, I'm not a scientist." In response, a group of Florida scientists requested to meet with Scott and explain the science to him. Scott agreed, but the meeting ended up only lasting 30 minutes.

The state's former governor – and current Republican presidential contender – Jeb Bush called himself a global warming "skeptic" in 2009. Current US Sen. Marco Rubio (R), another possible presidential hopeful for 2016, said last year that he doesn't "believe human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate."

Sea-level rise appears to be one term that has returned to the official Florida DEP vocabulary, however. In February, Scott unveiled $106 million in his proposed budget to deal with the impacts of rising oceans – although critics say the plans are not comprehensive enough to protect homes, roads, and infrastructure.

And rising oceans are only one of many climate change impacts expected to plague Florida in the coming decades. Besides being "exceptionally vulnerable" to sea-level rise, the 2014 US National Climate Assessment found that the region is also under threat from extreme heat events, stronger and more frequent hurricanes, and decreased water availability this century. Compounding these pressures is the fact that the state is home to some of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country.

The Southeast region of the US has been affected by more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters than any other region in the country, according to the National Climate Assessment. Sea-level rise alone threatens 30 percent of the state’s beaches over the next 85 years, according to FCIR.

Harold Wanless, a geologist and professor at the University of Miami, told FCIR it will be hard for the state government to plan for climate change if its officials can't talk about it.

"You have to start real planning, and I’ve seen absolutely none of that from the current governor," he said.

"It's beyond ludicrous to deny using the term climate change,” Professor Wanless added. "It's criminal at this point."

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