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.
This is Florida, the state of Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who said last year he doesn’t “believe human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate.” This is Florida, the state of former governor and Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush, who in 2009 called himself a global warming “skeptic.” And this is Florida, the state of Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who has punted on the issue. “Well, I’m not a scientist,” he told the Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo last year when asked if he was becoming less skeptical of man-made climate change.
According to a Sunday report from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, 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. Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), as reported by writer Tristram Korten, have been restricted from using the term “climate change” or “global warming” in official correspondence.
The investigative reporting outfit called it an “unwritten policy,” which was “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. “The irony is clearly apparent,” Korten told The Washington Post on Sunday night. “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.”
The report, published in the Miami Herald, was bolstered by the testimony of numerous former employees and e-mails from around the state. Kristina Trotta, who used to work in the DEP’s Miami office, said she was told during a 2014 meeting that she couldn’t employ terms such as “climate change” and “global warming.” “We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact,” she said. “… The regional administrator told us that we are the governor’s agency; this is the message from the governor’s office. And that is the message we will portray.”
In a brief interview with The Washington Post, Trotta said in some ways the ban wasn’t a surprise. She was familiar with Scott’s reservations on climate change. But in other ways, she was blown away. “It was a surprise, given what a clear threat climate change is to coral reefs and also to the state of Florida in general,” she told The Post.
It’s unclear how the alleged order came down. One state spokesman told the investigative outfit that “there’s no policy on this.”
The Post got the same answer. “DEP has no such policy in place,” department spokesman Dee Ann Miller wrote in an e-mail late Sunday night, pointing to myriad ways the state has monitored and studied rising sea levels and how they will affect coastal communities. “The department constantly monitors changes we identify in Florida ecosystems and works with other local and state agencies to ensure Florida’s communities and natural resources are protected.”
She didn’t use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in her response and declined to respond when asked whether she was aware of any unwritten policy that forbids those terms.
John Tupps, a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Scott, told the Washington Post “there is no policy in existence. … Allegations and claims made in the [Florida investigative article] are not true. This policy, it doesn’t exist.”
Korten, for his part, said some state officials stymied his efforts when he started asking specific questions. “Our story doesn’t say how deep this goes into the state government,” he said. “I called them repeatedly for comment and e-mailed, and no one would comment.”
If the 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.”
In some southern parts of the state, such as Miami Beach, sea rise is no longer something to debate, but something to deal with daily. 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.”
This post was updated after publication to reflect a statement provided by a spokesperson for Gov. Rick Scott.