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Terms such as 'climate change,' 'global warming' were outlawed, former Florida DEP employees say (w/video)

DEP officials have been ordered not to use the terms "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.

"We were told not to use the terms 'climate change,' 'global warming' or 'sustainability,' " said Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008 to 2013. "That message was communicated to me and my colleagues by our superiors."

Kristina Trotta, a former DEP employee 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. to lead the approximately 3,200-employee agency, with a budget of $1.4 billion, according to former DEP employees. Vinyard resigned in November. Neither he nor his successor, Scott Steverson, would comment for this report.

"DEP does not have a policy on this," Tiffany Cowie, department press secretary, wrote in an email.

Scott spokeswoman Jeri Bustamante wrote in an email: "There's no policy on this."

But former DEP employees from offices around the state say the order was well known.

"It's an indication that the political leadership is not willing to address these issues and face the music when it comes to the challenges that climate change presents," Byrd said.

Since 2010, Scott, who is in his second term, has repeatedly expressed doubt that climate change is occurring. In 2014 he said he was "not a scientist," when asked about the issue. This prompted a group of scientists to request a meeting.

"We had our 20 to 21 minutes, and he said thank you," recalled geologist and University of Miami professor Harold Wanless, who was at the meeting. "There were no questions of substance."

Scott's predecessor, Charlie Crist, had formed a statewide task force and convened a national summit in Miami in 2007. But evidence that the issue is out of favor in the Scott administration is apparent.

One example is an annual report on coastal conditions put together by DEP and other agencies. The 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 report, climate change is only mentioned if it is in the title of a past report or conference. There is one standalone reference that sources say must have slipped by.

Instead, terms like "climate drivers" are used.

Byrd said the policy in his office started during a 2011 staff meeting.

During a briefing on what to expect with the new secretary, deputy general counsel Larry Morgan gave "a warning to beware of the words global warming, climate change and sea level rise, and advised us not to use those words," Byrd said.

Morgan did not respond to a request for comment.

The DEP dismissed Byrd in 2013. He said it was because of disagreements over other policy issues.

Jim Harper was a consultant with the DEP's Coral Reef Conservation Program in Miami in 2013, writing educational material about protecting the reefs north of Miami.

"We were told not to use the term climate change," Harper said. "The employees were so skittish they wouldn't even talk about it."

His business partner, Annie Reisewitz, confirmed this account. "When we put climate change into the document, they told us they weren't using the term," she said.

A year later, Harper wanted to volunteer with the DEP to bring an informational PowerPoint about protecting reefs to community groups. When he saw that climate change was not in the PowerPoint, he and others at a training meeting asked why.

The two DEP employees running the meeting, Ana Zangroniz and Trotta, "said they were not allowed to show the words . . . climate change," according to Doug Young, another volunteer at the meeting.

Trotta left her position as a field and administrative assistant in January. She confirmed to FCIR that she was told about the policy during a staff meeting held by regional administrator Joanna Walczak in 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,' " Trotta said. "Sea level rise was to be referred to as 'nuisance flooding.' . . . The regional administrator told us that we are the governor's agency and this is the message from the governor's office."

Walczak declined to comment, citing DEP policy.

The ban on using "sea level rise" seems to have ended. In February, Scott unveiled $106 million in his proposed budget to deal with the effects of rising seas for things like sewage treatment in the Florida Keys and beach restoration. Critics say this is not enough to protect homes, roads and infrastructure.

This story has been edited for print. Read the full version at fcir.org. The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org.

A scientist searches for samples in Antarctica, where  ice is melting so rapidly it has become “ground zero of global climate change without a doubt,” said Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica.

Associated Press

A scientist searches for samples in Antarctica, where ice is melting so rapidly it has become “ground zero of global climate change without a doubt,” said Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica.

Terms such as 'climate change,' 'global warming' were outlawed, former Florida DEP employees say (w/video) 03/07/15 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2015 12:17am]
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