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.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
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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Wild and Scenic Merced River, California. Bob Wick / BLM<p>Let's begin with COVID-19. More than <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">16 million Americans</a> have contracted the coronavirus and, tragically,<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank"> more than</a> <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/coronavirus-us-cases.html?name=styln-coronavirus&region=TOP_BANNER&block=storyline_menu_recirc&action=click&pgtype=LegacyCollection&impression_id=2f508610-2a87-11eb-8622-4f6c038cbd1d&variant=1_Show" target="_blank">300,000 have died</a> due to the pandemic. While health officials encourage hand-washing to contain the pandemic, at least <a href="https://closethewatergap.org/" target="_blank">2 million Americans</a> are currently living without running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater treatment. Meanwhile, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank">aging water infrastructure is growing increasingly costly for utilities to maintain</a>. That cost is passed along to consumers. The upshot? <a href="https://research.msu.edu/affordable-water-in-us-reaching-a-crisis/" target="_blank">More than 13 million</a> U.S. households regularly face unaffordable water bills — and, thus, the threat of water shutoffs. Without basic access to clean water, families and entire communities are at a higher risk of <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/news/2020/08/05/488705/bridging-water-access-gap-covid-19-relief/" target="_blank">contracting</a> and spreading COVID-19.</p><p>We have a moral duty to ensure that everyone has access to clean water to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Last spring, <a href="https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/coronavirus-stimulus-bill-explained-bailouts-unemployment-benefits.html" target="_blank">Congress appropriated more than $4 trillion</a> to jumpstart the economy and bring millions of unemployed Americans back to work. Additional federal assistance — desperately needed — will present a historic opportunity to improve our crumbling infrastructure, which has been <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">grossly underfunded for decades</a>.</p><p>A report by my organization, American Rivers, suggests that <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Congress must invest at least $50 billion</a> "to address the urgent water infrastructure needs associated with COVID-19," including the rising cost of water. This initial boost would allow for the replacement and maintenance of sewers, stormwater infrastructure and water supply facilities.</p>
Economic Recovery<p>Investing in water infrastructure and healthy rivers also creates jobs. Consider, for example, that <a href="https://tinyurl.com/y9p6sgnk" target="_blank">every $1 million spent on water infrastructure in the United States generates more than 15 jobs</a> throughout the economy, according to a report by the Value of Water Campaign. Similarly, <a href="https://tinyurl.com/yyvd2ksp" target="_blank">every "$1 million invested in forest and watershed restoration contracting will generate between 15.7 and 23.8 jobs,</a> depending on the work type," states a working paper released by the Ecosystem Workforce Program, University of Oregon. Healthy rivers also spur tourism and recreation, which many communities rely on for their livelihoods. According to the findings by the Outdoor Industry Association, which have been shared in our report, "Americans participating in watersports and fishing spend over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">$174 billion</a> on gear and trip related expenses. And, the outdoor watersports and fishing economy supports over <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/30222425/Exec-summary-ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-June-30-2020.pdf" target="_blank">1.5 million jobs nationwide</a>."</p><p>After the 2008 financial crisis, Congress invested in infrastructure to put Americans back to work. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act <a href="https://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-a-budget/25941-clean-water-green-infrastructure-get-major-boost" target="_blank">of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $6 billion</a> for clean water and drinking water infrastructure to decrease unemployment and boost the economy. More specifically, <a href="https://www.conservationnw.org/news-updates/us-reps-push-for-millions-of-restoration-and-resilience-jobs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">an analysis of ARRA</a> "showed conservation investments generated 15 to 33 jobs per million dollars," and more than doubled the rate of return, according to a letter written in May 2020 by 79 members of Congress, seeking greater funding for restoration and resilience jobs.</p><p>Today, when considering how to create work for the <a href="https://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/empsit.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10.7 million</a> people who are currently unemployed, Congress should review previous stimulus investments and build on their successes by embracing major investments in water infrastructure and watershed restoration.</p>
Racial Justice<p>American Rivers also recommends that Congress dedicate <a href="https://s3.amazonaws.com/american-rivers-website/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/09223525/ECONOMIC-ENGINES-Report-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">$500 billion for rivers and clean water over the next 10 years</a> — not just for the benefit of our environment and economy, but also to begin to address the United States' history of deeply entrenched racial injustice.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.epa.gov/npdes/sanitary-sewer-overflows-ssos" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">23,000-75,000 sewer overflows</a> that occur each year release up to <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/2020/05/fighting-for-rivers-means-fighting-for-justice/#:~:text=There%20are%20also%2023%2C000%20to%2075%2C000%20sanitary%20sewer,to%20do%20with%20the%20mission%20of%20American%20Rivers." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">10 billion gallons of toxic sewage</a> <em>every day</em> into rivers and streams. This disproportionately impacts communities of color, because, for generations, Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color have been <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flooding-disproportionately-harms-black-neighborhoods/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relegated</a> to live in flood-prone areas and in neighborhoods that have been intentionally burdened with a lack of development that degrades people's health and quality of life. In some communities of color, incessant flooding due to stormwater surges or <a href="https://www.ajc.com/opinion/opinion-partnering-to-better-manage-our-water/7WQ6SEAQP5E4LGQCEYY5DO334Y/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">combined sewer overflows</a> has gone unmitigated for decades.</p><p>We have historically treated people as separate from rivers and water. We can't do that anymore. Every voice — particularly those of people most directly impacted — must have a loudspeaker and be included in decision-making at the highest levels.</p><p>Accordingly, the new administration must diligently invest in projects at the community level that will improve lives in our country's most marginalized communities. We also must go further to ensure that local leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. To this end, the Biden-Harris administration should restore <a href="https://www.epa.gov/cwa-401#:~:text=Section%20401%20Certification%20The%20Clean%20Water%20Act%20%28CWA%29,the%20United%20States.%20Learn%20more%20about%20401%20certification." target="_blank">Section 401 of the Clean Water Act</a>, which was undermined by the <a href="https://earthjustice.org/news/press/2020/tribes-and-environmental-groups-sue-trump-administration-to-preserve-clean-water-protections#:~:text=Under%20Section%20401%20of%20the%20Clean%20Water%20Act%2C,seeks%20to%20undermine%20that%20authority%20in%20several%20ways%3A" target="_blank">Trump administration's 2020 regulatory changes</a>. This provision gives states and tribes the authority to decide whether major development projects, such as hydropower and oil and gas projects, move forward.</p>
Climate Resilience<p>Of course, the menacing shadow looming over it all? Climate change. <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">More than 100 climate-related catastrophes</a> have pummeled the Earth since the pandemic was declared last spring, including the blitzkrieg of megafires, superstorms and heat waves witnessed during the summer of 2020, directly impacting the lives of more than <a href="https://media.ifrc.org/ifrc/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/IFRC_wdr2020/IFRC_WDR_ExecutiveSummary_EN_Web.pdf" target="_blank">50 million people globally</a>.</p><p>Water and climate scientist Brad Udall often says, "<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQhpj5G0dME" target="_blank">Climate change is water change</a>." In other words, the most obvious and dire impacts of climate change are evidenced in profound changes to our rivers and water resources. You've likely seen it where you live: Floods are more damaging and frequent. Droughts are deeper and longer. Uncertainty is destabilizing industry and lives.</p><p>By galvanizing action for healthy rivers and managing our water resources more effectively, we can insure future generations against the consequences of climate change. First, we must safeguard rivers that are still healthy and free-flowing. Second, we must protect land and property against the ravages of flooding. And finally, we must promote policies and practical solutions that take the science of climate disruption into account when planning for increased flooding, water shortage and habitat disruption.</p><p>Imagine all that rivers do for us. Most of our towns and cities have a river running through them or flowing nearby. Rivers provide clean drinking water, irrigate crops that provide our food, power our homes and businesses, provide wildlife habitat, and are the lifeblood of the places where we enjoy and explore nature, and where we play and nourish our spirits. Healthy watersheds help <a href="https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1059952" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mitigate</a> climate change, absorbing and reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Healthy rivers and floodplains help communities adapt and build resilience in the face of climate change by improving flood protection and providing water supply and quality benefits. Rivers are the cornerstones of healthy, strong communities.</p><p>The more than <a href="https://archive.epa.gov/water/archive/web/html/index-17.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">3 million miles</a> of rivers and streams running across our country are a source of great strength and opportunity. When we invest in healthy rivers and clean water, we can improve our lives. When we invest in rivers, we create jobs and strengthen our economy. When we invest in rivers, we invest in our shared future.</p>
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