Florida Officials Banned From Using the Terms ‘Climate Change’ and 'Sustainability'
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 (DEP), the state agency on the front lines of studying and planning for these changes.
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DEP officials have been ordered not to use the term “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.
The policy goes beyond semantics and has affected reports, educational efforts and public policy in a department that has about 3,200 employees and $1.4 billion budget.
“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 in the Office of General Counsel.”
Kristina Trotta, another former DEP employee who worked 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. as the DEP’s director, according to former DEP employees. Gov. Scott, who won a second term in November, has repeatedly said he is not convinced that climate change is caused by human activity, despite scientific evidence to the contrary. Vinyard has since resigned. Neither he nor his successor, Scott Steverson, would comment for this report.
“DEP does not have a policy on this,” the department’s press secretary, Tiffany Cowie, wrote in an email. She declined to respond to three other emails requesting more information.
Jeri Bustamante, a spokesperson with the governor’s office, wrote in an email that “There’s no policy on this.”
But four former DEP employees from offices around the states say the order was well known and distributed verbally statewide.
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.
Former DEP attorney Byrd said it was clear to him this was more than just semantics.
“It’s an indication that the political leadership in the state of Florida is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change presents,” Byrd said.
Climate change and global warming refer to the body of scientific evidence showing that the Earth’s environment is warming due to human activity including the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. It is accepted science all over the world.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the United Nations, wrote in a 2014 report for world policy makers: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.” The report’s authors were scientists from 27 countries.
Still, many conservative U.S. politicians say the science is not conclusive and refuse to work on legislation addressing climate change. This type of legislation, such as a carbon tax or policies to encourage more sustainable energy sources, could be costly to established industry.
Among the skeptics is Gov. Scott. During his first campaign for governor in 2010, Scott told reporters who asked about his views on climate change that he had “not been convinced,” and that he would need “something more convincing than what I’ve read.” In 2014, he said he “was not a scientist” when asked about his views on climate change.
In response, a group of Florida scientists requested to meet with Scott and explain the science behind the phenomenon. Scott agreed. The scientists were given 30 minutes.
“He actually, as we were warned, spent ten minutes doing silly things like prolonged introductions,” geologist and University of Miami professor Harold Wanless recalled. “But we had our 20 to 21 minutes, and he said thank you and went on to his more urgent matters, such as answering his telephone calls and so on. There were no questions of substance ”
Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, had been proactive on climate change, forming a statewide task force and convening a national summit in Miami in 2007. But evidence the issue has fallen out of favor during the Scott administration is apparent.
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 that sources say must have slipped by the censors. “It’s a distinct possibility,” said one former DEP employee.
Instead, terms like “climate drivers” and “climate-driven changes” are used.
Orders From the Top
Christopher Byrd said that he was warned not to use “climate change” and related terms during a 2011 staff meeting shortly after Gov. Scott appointed Vinyard as DEP director.
“Deputy General Counsel Larry Morgan was giving us a briefing on what to expect with the new secretary,” Byrd recalled. Morgan gave them “a warning to beware of the words global warming, climate change and sea-level rise, and advised us not to use those words in particular.”
Added Byrd: “I did infer from this meeting that this was a new policy, that these words were to be prohibited for use from official DEP policy-making with our clients.”
Morgan did not respond to a request for comment.
DEP dismissed Byrd in 2013. His termination letter states: “We thank you for your service to the State of Florida; however, we believe the objectives of the office will be accomplished more effectively by removing you from your position.” Byrd, now in private practice as an environmental lawyer in Orlando, said he was fired because he repeatedly complained the DEP was not enforcing laws to protect the environment.
Although he disagreed with the policy, Byrd said he nonetheless passed the warning down to the various offices he worked with, including the Coral Reef Conservation Program at the Biscayne Bay Environmental Center in Miami.
“As you can imagine with the state of coral reef protection,” Byrd said, “sustainability, sea-level rise, and climate change itself were words we used quite often.”
The Coral Reef Conservation Program is where Jim Harper, a nature writer in Miami, was working as a consultant in 2013. He had a contract to write a series of educational fact sheets about how to protect the coral reefs north of Miami. Climate change was one of the issues Harper and his partner on the project, Annie Reisewitz, wanted to address.
“We were told not to use the term climate change,” Harper said. “The employees were so skittish they wouldn’t even talk about it.”
Reisewitz confirmed Harper’s story. “When we put climate change into the document, they told us they weren’t using the term climate change,” she said.
Harper and Reisewitz completed the assignment as instructed.
A year later, in November 2014, the Coral Reef Conservation Program held a meeting to train volunteers to use a PowerPoint presentation about the threats coral reefs faced. Harper attended the meeting, held at DEP’s Biscayne Bay office in Miami. Doug Young, president of the South Florida Audubon Society and a member of the Broward County Climate Change Task Force, also attended.
Two DEP employees, Ana Zangroniz and Kristina Trotta, showed the presentation to the volunteers and then asked if anyone had a question.
“I told them the biggest problem I have was that there was absolutely no mention of climate change and the affect of climate change on coral reefs,” Young said.
He continued: “The two young women, really good people, said, ‘We are not allowed to show the words, or show any slides that depicted anything related to climate change.’ ”
Young and Harper said they could not participate if climate change was not mentioned. “The women kept saying, ‘Work with us; we know you are frustrated,’” Harper said.
On Nov. 19, 2014, the DEP’s Zangroniz wrote Harper and Young an email stating she had talked to her manager about their concerns.
“Unfortunately at this time,” she wrote, “we can’t make any alterations or additions to the presentation. … If you do choose to continue as a volunteer, we would have to request that you present the information as is. 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.”
Trotta left her position as a field and administrative assistant in January. She told FCIR that when it came to scrubbing the term “climate change” from projects, she was following orders. Those orders came from Regional Administrator Joanna Walczak during a staff meeting in the summer of 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.’”
When staff protested, Trotta said, “the regional administrator told us that we are the governor’s agency and this is the message from the governor’s office. And that is the message we will portray.”
The order pained her, said Trotta, who has a master’s degree in marine biology, because she believes climate change is an imminent threat to Florida.
Walczak declined to comment citing DEP policy.
While state officials are still not using the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming,’ any prohibition of the term “sea-level rise” seems to have ended. In a February press conference, Scott unveiled $106 million in his proposed budget to deal with the effects of rising oceans. But $50 million of that is for a sewage plant in the Keys, and $25 million is for beach restoration, which critics say is hardly a comprehensive plan to protect homes, roads and infrastructure.
Wanless, the University of Miami professor, said the state government needs to acknowledge climate change as settled science and as a threat to people and property in Florida.
“You have to start real planning, and I’ve seen absolutely none of that from the current governor,” he 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. “It’s criminal at this point.”
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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