The Truth about Florida’s Attempt to Censor Climate Change

Got Science | April 2015

Florida governor Rick Scott (official photo).

If recent events in Florida have shown anything, it’s that you can’t make climate change go away by trying to outlaw official mention of it.

Last month, when the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting broke the news that Florida Governor Rick Scott had allegedly placed a gag order on the terms “climate change” and “global warming,” the story made headlines around the world. With more than 1,000 miles of coastline, and some 2.4 million people living within four feet of the high tide line, low-lying Florida is among the world’s most vulnerable regions to sea level rise driven by global warming. Who could resist the tragic irony that the state’s governor was apparently opting to ban any mention of the subject at state agencies rather than spurring the vital work needed to help his state prepare?

Governor Scott denies imposing such a ban. He told reporters in Florida that his intention for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other agencies was merely to tell them: “Instead of talking about it, let's do something about it.” Leaving aside the mechanics of how such a directive could possibly work, Scott’s denial has been contradicted by testimonials from a cascade of current and former state employees who have spoken out about the ban in recent weeks.

A clear pattern

Since the story surfaced in early March, many current and former workers at Florida’s DEP have come forward.

Bart Bibler, state land management planner at Florida DEP told the press he was suspended and then ordered to consult a doctor on his fitness for work after referencing climate change in notes from a meeting on sea level rise.

Former Florida DEP employee Kristina Trotta says she was explicitly told in 2014 not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming." 

Christopher Byrd, a former attorney with the Florida DEP, says he was told by his superiors at a staff meeting that, “if he knew what was good for him,” he would not use the terms.

What’s more, empirical evidence bolsters these and other testimonials. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting followed up their initial article with a year-by-year keyword search for the term “climate change” in documents on DEP’s public website, including reports, agendas, and other communications.

The analysis reveals a steep decline in the use of the term after Scott took office. In 2010, prior to Scott’s election, documents on the Florida DEP website contained 209 references to “climate change.” The next year, Scott’s first in office, the numbers declined to 123 total references, mostly older documents still available on the site. The decline has continued steadily over the course of Scott’s tenure as governor. Last year, the investigative group found just 34 references to the term with no references added so far in 2015.

Given the increasing urgency of climate-related issues in Florida and their centrality to DEP’s mission, it is hard to imagine how such a decrease could have occurred without some kind of explicit directive.

Broader impact

Perhaps more disturbing, though, is how widely the censorship appears to have extended at state agencies other than DEP.

Bill Taylor, a recently retired assistant manager at the Florida Department of Transportation, for instance, came forward to say he was explicitly told not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” when dealing with sea level rise issues. His story was echoed by a retired employee from the South Florida Water Management District.

When Elizabeth Radke, a researcher at the University of Florida, collaborated on a paper with an employee at the Florida Department of Health, she says she received an edited version with each reference to climate change underlined. A request to delete the words, she says, was communicated to her verbally.

The list goes on.

As the story unfolded, videotaped testimony by Bryan Koon, the director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management before a committee of the Florida state senate even went viral. The exchange shows Koon’s verbal gymnastics as he tries to avoid uttering the forbidden words, going to such extreme lengths when questioned about it that state senators on the committee actually break out laughing.

Nicole Hernandez Hammer, former assistant director of climate change research at Florida Atlantic University, who now consults for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says she too was told to “tone down” mentions of climate change in a report she and her colleagues prepared for the Florida Department of Transportation.

She says the Scott administration’s aversion to the phrase “climate change” became common knowledge among people working in the state but never surfaced publicly because people were afraid to speak out about it for fear of losing their jobs.

“The issue is about much more than semantics,” Hammer says, “because if you can't talk freely about climate change, you can't possibly deal with it in a comprehensive and responsible way.”

A doomed strategy

The emerging picture of the Scott administration’s censorship shows a clear chilling effect among workers at state agencies. But even such an ill-considered gag order can do little to obscure the reality that encroaching tides driven by global warming are already causing problems in many parts of southern Florida.

A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, showed that Miami is currently experiencing some six tidal floods per year but, by 2030, the frequency of tidal flooding is predicted to increase nearly eightfold—to more than 45. And by 2045, the city can expect more than 40 times as many floods as today, reaching ever deeper inland. The simple fact, already evident to many Floridians, is that people in Florida are now buying and selling homes that will likely face regular flooding within the lifetime of their mortgages. And the Miami area is so flat that just a few additional feet of sea level rise threatens to render whole areas of the city uninhabitable. That’s a hard fact to sweep under the rug given that the insured value of property in the coastal counties of Florida is estimated at $2.9 trillion

In light of these realities, some pockets of badly needed climate activism and preparedness have occurred despite Scott administration policies. One notable example is the 2010 Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, an agreement by the four counties of Southeast Florida – Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe – to work together to pursue climate change adaptation measures. The compact has already released an action plan containing 110 recommendations for cities and counties, ranging from cutting emissions and facilitating the deployment of clean energy to identifying areas which needed special attention due to constant flooding or proximity to rising seas. And some communities have already begun to take the recommended steps.

Plus, revelations about the Scott administration’s censorship have naturally drawn even more public attention to the issue and prompted calls for action. The environmental group Forecast the Facts filed a complaint with the DEP’s inspector general office and called for an investigation. The group Progress Florida filed an open records request for emails between Scott and the FDEP to learn more about the alleged policy. And Florida Sen. Bill Nelson even tried to pass an amendment to the federal budget to make it illegal for any federal agency to ban employees from talking about climate change.

Why it matters

Given the realities in Florida, it is hard to imagine the rationale for Scott’s apparent head-in-the-sand approach to climate change. In the very short term, it has likely allowed development where it shouldn’t be and possibly helped perpetuate a coastal real estate bubble that is clearly an accident waiting to happen on a mind-boggling scale.

But given the clear science and concrete evidence of immediate climate impacts, it’s hard not to see Scott’s gag order as folly of the highest order. Floridian’s surely deserve more from their leadership.

As Nicole Hernandez Hammer puts it, “We’re in big trouble if we don’t figure out how to deal with and adapt to the climate impacts we face.”

Hammer says that perhaps the saddest thing is the missed opportunity. “As a state particularly vulnerable to climate impacts,” she says, “we need to recognize that we can lead the way. We can be innovative, we can face these issues and find solutions that can serve as a model and be helpful to other coastal communities. But we can’t do that unless we address these issues head on.”