By late January of this year, Elizabeth Radke figured she was pretty much done with Florida. She had already graduated from the University of Florida, where she had gotten her PhD in epidemiology. She had moved from the Sunshine State to the Washington area, where she took a job at Arlington County’s public health department. And a paper from her time there, which looked at how climate change in Florida had affected ciguatera — a commonly reported marine food-borne illness — was getting closer to publication.
But then, on Jan. 27, a message popped into her inbox. Subject: “Paper Review.” And Radke realized she wasn’t through with Florida yet. In fact, she was about to get dragged into what has now become a national scandal over an alleged “unwritten policy” among some Florida state environmental offices that forbids the use of terms such as “climate change” and “global warming” in official correspondence.
On Sunday, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, which broke the news in a story that quickly ricocheted across the nation, connected the protocol directly to the office of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who has long voiced suspicion of man-made climate change despite overwhelming scientific consensus it exists — not to mention indications of rising sea levels in southeastern Florida. “I’m not a scientist” has been Scott’s standard response.
“We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability,’ ” Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) from 2008 until 2013, told the investigative outfit. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors in the Office of General Counsel.”
On Monday, Scott and his office pushed back against the report. Scott was pressed hard by reporters. “It’s not true,” Scott said, according to the Miami Herald, declining to get into specifics. “Let’s look at what we’ve accomplished. We’ve had significant investments in beach renourishment, in flood mitigation. … I’m into solutions, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.” He declined to say whether he thinks global warming is real, whether he’s concerned by it or whether he’s preparing for it.
The Washington Post, which reported on the story early Monday, was also contacted by a representative of Scott’s office. John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, said he was unaware of any policy — written or otherwise — that forbids officials with the DEP from using those terms. “Allegations and claims made in the [Florida Center for Investigative Reporting article] are not true,” Tupps said. “This policy, it doesn’t exist, and it’s not true.”
But the story of Elizabeth Radke, who in late January got an e-mail from her co-author, a program coordinator with the Florida Department of Health, casts a degree of uncertainty on Scott’s assertions. Before publication, their study needed clearance from the Health Department in Tallahassee. So Sharon Watkins, chief of the department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, marked up the paper, homing in on the phrase “climate change.” It was used four times in the 27-page paper, according to a copy provided to The Post. Each one was underlined.
“Come talk to me,” Watkins wrote in the margins in an apparent reference to the first use of the term “climate change.”
“Let’s discuss over the phone soon,” wrote Radke’s co-author, whom Radke asked The Post not to identify for fear of retribution. The conversations that came next, Radke said, were over the phone. Her co-author, she said, told her they had to expunge the term “climate change” from the paper, per Watkins’s directive.
“We had to submit the paper to the state Department of Health for clearance, and one of the comments we got back was that we couldn’t use that phrase,” Radke said Monday evening in an interview. She said she wasn’t sure if they could even get away with using the word “climate.” She was aware of times the state had rejected it.
And indeed, in e-mails Radke shared with The Post, she wondered about that very issue. If her paper couldn’t use the term “climate change,” what could they use? Was “climate” off the table? A fellow researcher, she wrote in a message with the subject “climate language,” suggested “‘long term climate variability.’ Will that fly or is the word ‘climate’ a no go?”
Hours later, she wrote another e-mail. “It will be fine either way. I just went through the paper and there are only a handful of mentions.”
Her co-author wrote back: “I am checking about the climate thingy.”
Watkins, reached by telephone late Monday, declined to comment on the e-mails and any policy that allegedly prohibits the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” “All media inquiries to us need to go through our press office,” she told The Post. “It’s very late and you’re calling my house, and it’s not our policy to talk like this.”
When Radke realized she had to delete the words “climate change” from her article, she said she couldn’t believe it. To her, it seemed like politics had invaded a subject that should transcend them. “I was shocked,” she said. “I was shocked from a scientific standpoint but not shocked from the standpoint of we know who the governor is. … I am absolutely concerned that politics is in this, and I don’t know what their rationale is, but I am certainly concerned.”
Still, Radke made the changes. For example, the paper originally said, “This provides a potentially useful marker on the impact of global climate change on ciguatera.” But now, she’s amended it to say, “This provides a useful marker on the impact of global climate variability on ciguatera.”