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Florida Officials Banned the Term "Climate Change," But the Insurance Industry Knows Better

Joe Raedle /Getty Images

For years, Florida had an unwritten rule banning state environmental officials from using the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any of their communication, including emails and reports. Rather than discuss the issue of sea level rise directly, the Department of Environmental Protection substituted words like “climate drivers” and “climate-driven changes," according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. The policy began in 2011 under Governor Rick Scott, the state's top climate change denier. 

But Florida's climate change censorship is not so unique. At least two other coastal states, North Carolina and Florida, have similarly suppressed discussion of climate change. In 2012, the North Carolina legislature issued a four-year moratorium on state policies that account for changes in sea-level rise: Even as new estimates of sea level rise come out, the law prevents state agencies from accounting for these changes until 2016. Virginia has suppressed mention of sea level rise even as it has commissioned studies to prepare for its effects. In 2012, the Virginia legislature set conditions for a state-sponsored climate change study that prevented it from using words like "sea level rise." A Republican lawmaker from Virginia Beach objected to the term as "left-wing" and "political speech."

Insurance companies, meanwhile, don't consider sea level rise and climate change to be political terms. They have no choice but to incorporate scientific reality into its calculus.

"Insurance is heavily dependent on scientific thought," Frank Nutter, the president of the Reinsurance Association of America, told the New York Times in 2013. "It is not as amenable to politicized scientific thought." And insurers know they must adapt to the changing climate. "The rise in sea level caused by climate change will further increase the risk of storm surge," Peter Hoppe, an expert at the insurer Munich Re, has said. "And, with no apparent prospect of progress in international climate negotiations like those held recently in Doha, adaptation to such hazards using suitable protective measures is absolutely essential."

In Florida, $15 billion in property will be below the average sea level by mid-century, according to a broad 2014 analysis of the economic risks from climate change. Nationwide, $66 billion worth of property is threatened by rising seas. And it's not just beach homes that are at risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency expects that a 4-foot rise in sea level will cause a 45 percent increase in areas at risk of flooding in the U.S.

Banning words lets politicians avoid dealing with difficult, costly problems. Florida is the flattest state in the country, with 1,200 miles of coastline, making it particulary susceptible to even small changes in sea levels. By the end of the century, scientists project up to 6.6 feet of sea level rise—enough to flood the 2.4 million Floridians who live less than 4 feet above sea level.