Climate

It’s ‘Orwellian’: Florida Scientists Respond To Report That State Agency Banned ‘Climate Change’

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On Sunday, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published a story that alleged that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) had unofficially banned its employees from saying the words “climate change” and “global warming” in official communications. The charge of censorship clashes sharply with Florida’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, particularly sea level rise.

But 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. He told ThinkProgress that he’d spoken with employees of other Florida agencies — he declined to name which ones — 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.

“The first thing they said to me was, ‘Oh we’re not allowed to talk about that,'” Kirtman said of a meeting in which he brought up climate change with employees of a state agency.

The FCIR report included multiple interviews with former employees of and volunteers with the state’s DEP, all of whom said the unwritten rule had been implemented soon after Gov. Rick Scott (R) took office in 2011. Both the DEP and the governor’s office denied the existence of a policy on talking about climate change to the FCIR, and Gov. Scott himself has also reportedly said that the claims aren’t true. The DEP confirmed its stance denying the policy to ThinkProgress Monday.

“It’s simply not true — there’s nothing else to add,” Dee Ann Miller, spokesperson for Florida’s DEP, said. “We have no such policy.”

Florida State University environmental science professor Jeffrey Chanton gives a presentation to Florida Gov. Rick Scott on climate change on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 in Tallahassee, Fla.

Florida State University environmental science professor Jeffrey Chanton gives a presentation to Florida Gov. Rick Scott on climate change on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014 in Tallahassee, Fla.

CREDIT: AP PHOTOS/BRENDAN FARRINGTON

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.

Kirtman’s previous experience with Florida agencies may have stifled his surprise at the FCIR report, but David Hastings, professor of marine science and chemistry at Florida’s Eckerd College, said he was shocked by the article.

“At first I thought it was out of the Onion or some other kind of satirical website,” he said. “It was like a page out of 1984. It was Orwellian. That they are not allowing a word to be used…it’s scary.”

Both scientists — along with Jeff Chanton, the John Widmer Winchester Professor of Oceanography at Florida State University — were dismayed by the article’s claims. Chanton said the unwritten rule amounted to “muzzling science,” and Kirtman said he thought it would be difficult for the state to make significant headway on mitigating and adapting to climate change if state agencies like the DEP weren’t allowed to talk about it.

That’s important because, in Florida, the threats surrounding climate change and its impacts are only becoming more dire — the state, especially the Southern region, is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and the ecological, economic, and infrastructure-related problems that come with it. Though Scott last month announced a proposed effort to mitigate the effects of sea level rise in Florida, Florida’s state government has been slow to act on climate change.

The scientists stressed the need for the state to use the latest climate science to inform its decisions on climate change, and said the state needed to start planning for climate impacts now, or risk much costlier adaptation measures in the future.

“To say you can’t talk about the best available science is crazy,” Kirtman said. “It’s like telling doctors they can’t do a CAT scan when people have cancer because, ‘I don’t believe in it.'”

Both Kirtman and Hastings expressed worries that the policy was anti-business too. Acting on climate change could bring a variety of business opportunities to the state — in renewable energy, resilient building and retrofitting, and other areas — and blocking that economic growth goes against the governor’s pro-jobs mentality.

All three scientists were among the five who met with Gov. Scott last August, in an attempt to provide him a basis on what climate change is and what effects it’s having in Florida. The scientists left that meeting unsure whether Gov. Scott had gotten the message — he’d taken up about a third of the 30-minute meeting with small talk and hadn’t asked any climate-related questions, they said — but they’re still hopeful that the governor will meet with them again on the issue. They’re also hopeful that the governor’s office will address the policy on climate change censorship, saying definitively that state employees will be able to speak about climate change from now on.

“What the administration needs to do is come out and say, ‘we’ve made a mistake, were sorry, and we’ll do better in the future,” Chanton said. “I believe they’ll do the right thing.”