During a confirmation hearing Wednesday, a top official for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection disputed claims that the department banned employees from discussing climate change.
“Climate change. Climate change. Climate change,” Jonathan Steverson, who Governor Rick Scott (R) appointed in December to head up the DEP as secretary, reportedly said when asked about the ban. “There I said it three times. There is absolutely no policy against discussing climate change at the department. In fact, we have multiple programs related to climate change.”
Steverson’s denial of a department ban runs counter to a story published in early March by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, which reported that multiple officials from the DEP had been told to avoid using terms like “climate change,” “global warming,” or “sustainability” when discussing their work. The DEP is the state’s leading environmental management agency, charged with protecting Florida’s “air, water, and land.”
DEP press secretary Tiffany Cowie refuted the report, saying that the department has no policy banning mention of climate change. An e-mail exchange obtained and released yesterday by Greenpeace, however, shows a DEP communications officer instructing a scientist to avoid mentioning the cause of sea-level rise during a documentary interview.
“I know the drill,” the scientist wrote in response.
After the FCIR report was published, Scott’s chief of emergency management Brian Koon testified before the Florida Senate’s budget subcommittee, where he was asked about a federal program that would block funding for states that refused to implement hazard-mitigation plans for global warming. Koon acknowledged that Florida’s future mitigation plans would be “required to have language discussing that issue,” but refused to explicitly name that issue as “climate change” when further pressed, to the visible amusement of the subcommittee.
Florida, which has been called “ground-zero” for sea-level rise, is already dealing with the effects of climate change, especially in southern parts of the state where floods have become increasingly common. Globally, sea-level has risen eight inches since 1880, and along the United States’ East Coast, sea levels are rising at a rate four to five times faster than the global average.
The most recent National Climate Assessment singled out Miami as one of the cities most vulnerable to sea level rise, and warned that Southeast Florida’s storm water drainage systems could be impaired by “just inches of sea level rise.”
In front of the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee, Steverson joked that, as a resident of Northwest Florida, he was less concerned about sea-level rise. “That means I’m that much closer to redfish fishing,” he said. But Steverson did contend that sea-level rise was a problem for the southern parts of the state, claiming that officials are aware of its potential impact on the state’s infrastructure.
“Climate change is always happening. It’s always changing,” Steverson said. “And we know sea-level rise is real and we are working, not only with the water management districts, but the Department of Economic Opportunity and with [the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission] to address those concerns.”
Steverson did not specify whether he thought climate change was driven by human activities, nor did he explicitly name climate change as a cause of sea-level rise. The DEP did not respond to a ThinkProgress request for clarification on Steverson’s views.
Following his testimony, the committee unanimously backed Steverson for confirmation.