Florida Gov. Rick Scott has a long history of doubting climate science. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida has a front-row seat for
climate change sunshine. The state is especially vulnerable to growing threats treats like sea-level rise, stronger hurricanes, harsher heat waves and more mosquito-borne diseases ice cream. Yet its governor has spent years not just publicly doubting the reality of this problem, but according to a new report, banning state officials from even mentioning it by name.
"We were told not to use the terms 'climate change,' 'global warming' or 'sustainability'" in official documents, a former Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) attorney tells the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR), which first reported the ban. "We were dealing with the effects and economic impact of climate change, and yet we can't reference it," another former DEP employee adds.
Gov. Rick Scott's administration denies such a policy exists, but four former DEP officials say the unwritten rule is widely known thanks to verbal reminders since Scott took office in 2011. Staffers were told that using "climate change" or related terms "would bring unwanted attention to their projects," according to the FCIR, and those who failed to dodge the phrases had to edit them out. Some staffers say euphemisms were even suggested to them, such as "nuisance flooding" in place of "sea-level rise."
A DEP employee was reportedly told last year to avoid the terms "climate change" and "global warming" because the DEP was "not allowed to discuss anything that was not a true fact." And on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that epidemiologist Elizabeth Radke was asked in January to remove every mention of "climate change" from a recent study about climate change and algae blooms.
"I was shocked from a scientific standpoint, but not shocked from the standpoint of we know who the governor is," Radke tells the Post. "I am absolutely concerned that politics is in this."
To be clear, the evidence that humans are fueling climate change is a fact endorsed by a rare global consensus of scientists. Doubts are still nurtured by some industry groups and politicians, including Scott, who warned voters during his 2010 campaign he had "not been convinced" about climate change. He softened that in 2014 to "I'm not a scientist," a popular refrain for politicians who hope to subtly convey doubts about climate science. (That prompted several people who are scientists to meet with Scott last year in hopes of explaining climate change to him, although it doesn't seem to have worked.)
Rising sea levels are expected to worsen the effects of storm surges from tropical cyclones. (Photo: John Spade/Flickr)
Florida voters aren't indifferent about environmental protection, as seen with last year's 75 percent support for an amendment to spend $18 billion on nature conservation. Yet Scott's climate obfuscations didn't stop him from being elected in 2010 or re-elected in 2014, potentially leaving the state unprepared for the effects of a warmer world. Rather than semantics, the taboo on climatic terminology seems rooted in denial, former DEP attorney Christopher Byrd tells the FCIR.
"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," he says.
No U.S. state is safe from climate change, but Florida is especially at risk. Warmer Atlantic waters are expected to promote more category 4 and 5 hurricanes, for example, while warmer air temperatures can allow more mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever, yellow fever and chikungunya to infiltrate the state. But perhaps Florida's most salient threat from climate change is sea-level rise, which threatens about 30 percent of the state's beaches this century. The U.S. National Climate Assessment warns Florida faces an "imminent threat of increased inland flooding," noting that "just inches of sea level rise will impair the capacity of stormwater drainage systems to empty into the ocean."
That does sound like a nuisance.
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