In Florida, Officials Ban Term "Climate Change"

Mar 9, 2015

The state of 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.

But you would not know that by talking to officials at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes.

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any official communications, emails or reports, according to former DEP employees, consultants, volunteers and records obtained by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

“We were told not to use the terms 'climate change,’ 'global warming’ or 'sustainability,’” said Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013. “That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors.”

Kristina Trotta, a former DEP employee in Miami, said her supervisor told her not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in a 2014 staff meeting.

“We were told that we were not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact,” she said.

This unwritten policy went into effect after Gov. Rick Scott took office in 2011 and appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. to lead the roughly 3,200-employee agency with a budget of $1.4 billion, according to former DEP employees. Vinyard resigned in November. Neither he nor his successor, Scott Steverson, would comment for this report.

Jim Harper, formerly DEP: We were told not to use the term climate change.
Credit FCIR

  “DEP does not have a policy on this,” department press secretary, Tiffany Cowie, wrote in an email.

But former DEP employees from offices around the state say the order was well known.

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.

Byrd said the policy went beyond semantics.

“It’s an indication that the political leadership is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change presents,” Byrd said.

Since 2010, Scott, who is in his second term, has repeatedly expressed doubt that climate change is occurring. In 2014 he said he “was not a scientist,” when asked about the issue. This prompted a group of scientists to request a meeting.

“We had our 20 to 21 minutes, and he said thank you,” recalled geologist and University of Miami professor Harold Wanless, who was at the meeting. “There were no questions of substance.”

Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, had formed a statewide task force and convened a national summit in Miami in 2007. But evidence the issue is out of favor in the Scott administration is apparent.

Read an extended version of this story at MiamiHerald.com.

One example is the Florida Oceans and Coastal Council’s Annual Research Plan, put together by DEP and other state agencies. The 2009-2010 report, published the year before Scott was elected, contains 15 references to climate change, including a section titled “Research Priorities – Climate Change.”

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. There is one standalone reference to the issue at the end of a sentence.

Instead, terms like “climate drivers” are used.

Byrd said the policy in his office started during a 2011 staff meeting.

During a briefing on what to expect with the new secretary, Deputy General Counsel Larry Morgan gave “a warning to beware of the words global warming, climate change and sea-level rise, and advised us not to use those words,” Byrd said.

Morgan did not respond to a request for comment.

The DEP dismissed Byrd in 2013. He said it was over disagreements over other policy issues.

Jim Harper was a consultant with the DEP’s Coral Reef Conservation Program in Miami in 2013, writing educational material about protecting the reefs north of Miami.

“We were told not to use the term climate change,” Harper said. “The employees were so skittish they wouldn’t even talk about it.”

His business partner, Annie Reisewitz, confirmed this account. “When we put climate change into the document, they told us they weren’t using the term,” she said.

A year later, Harper wanted to volunteer with the DEP to bring an informational PowerPoint about protecting reefs to community groups. When he saw that climate change was not in the PowerPoint, he and others at a training meeting asked why.

The two DEP employees running the meeting, Ana Zangroniz and Kristina Trotta, “said they were not allowed to show the words … climate change,” according to Doug Young, another volunteer at the meeting.

Later Zangroniz wrote Harper and Young an email stating she had talked to her manager and was told: “If you choose to add in an additional presentation or speaker that addresses climate change and coral reefs, there would have to be a very clear split between the two.”

Email from a DEP official to volunteers regarding absence of climate change terms in DEP presentation. Obtained by FCIR.

  Trotta left her position as a field and administrative assistant in January. She confirmed to FCIR that she was told about the policy during a staff meeting held by Regional Administrator Joanna Walczak in 2014.

“We were instructed by our regional administrator that we were no longer allowed to use the terms 'global warming’ or 'climate change’ or even 'sea-level rise,’ ” said Trotta. “Sea-level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding.’ ... The regional administrator told us that we are the governor’s agency, and this is the message from the governor’s office.”

Walczak declined to comment citing DEP policy.

The ban on using “sea-level rise” seems to have ended. In February, Scott unveiled $106 million in his proposed budget to deal with the effects of rising seas for things like sewage treatment in the Keys, and beach restoration. Critics say this is not enough to protect homes, roads and infrastructure.

“You have to start real planning, and I've seen absolutely none of that from the current governor,” University of Miami's Wanless said.

In Florida it will be hard to plan for climate change, he said, if officials can't talk about climate change.

“It's beyond ludicrous to deny using the term climate change,” Wanless said.

The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.