You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Florida's State Employees are Preparing for Climate Change, Even as Their Governor Bans the Phrase

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

From years of reporting on government employees, I know that they're in it for the long haul. Governors and news cycles come and go. The public's attention is beagle-fickle. But there are 25 years to go before pension. So I wasn't expecting any heroes to rock the boat from inside the vast bureaucracy that is Florida's government when I began to investigate the silent treatment given the terms "climate change" and "global warming" within state agencies.

After we at the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR) broke that story, I still found the idea galling: that professionals, many of them scientists, allowed themselves to be cowed from using basic scientific language. After all, that keep-your-head-down mentality has allowed the administration of Republican Gov. Rick Scott to get away with this for the past four years. But perhaps it's also comforting. The employees I've found during my reporting are nonetheless the ones doing the long thinking, working to address the effects of climate change, even as they have to hunker to avoid political interference. They know they'll be here when Rick Scott is gone. So will the problems they're working on.

Until that day, the story has once again made Florida the punch-line state. Several ex-state employees, as well as contractors, researchers and volunteers, have come forward to say that they were told not to use the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in any official communications, reports and emails. References to climate change in Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reports and documents plunged after Scott was elected governor, according to an FCIR analysis.

The extent of what all of this means, we don't yet know. While some inside the DEP have expressed relief that the word is out (pun intended) and sure as hell ain't going back in, they also expressed fear that their projects are now in peril. They worry that they've been outed, and that funding for climate change work will be cut.

This is the ridiculous balance state employees are being asked to perform. The Department of Transportation is studying how to accommodate sea-level rise in future road plans, and how to protect existing infrastructure. The state's water management districts are modeling sea level rise projections. The DEP is managing the damage to the coasts and monitoring saltwater incursions into freshwater aquifers. They're preparing for the effects of climate change … yet to do so without interference, they dare not whisper the very phrase. It's Kafka as interpreted by Orwell and performed by Tallahassee's finest. 

The story broke on March 8, and within a day, most major U.S. media—CNN, NBC, Washington Post, NPR—ran a version of it. The rest of the world also caught the tragicomic irony of flat, low, peninsular Florida suppressing references to an existential threat. News outlets in England, Australia, Norway, France, Italy, India and Japan carried the story.

Amid this global shout-out, the Scott administration has remained predictably tight-lipped. The governor said first “there is no policy,” and then “it's not true.” But he didn't offer any details on what exactly is not true, or why former state employees would all voice the same delusion. This long has been the administration's standard approach when dealing with controversy: do not comment, and then wait out the news cycle. Scott's approach to governing is similar. If Scott doesn't like or support the issue, silence prevails among subordinates.

But this nuisance is sticking around, perhaps even gaining steam. Al Gore tweeted it. The Union of Concerned Scientists started a petition. John Kerry mentioned it in speech at the Atlantic Council. The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced a new rule requiring states to have climate mitigation plan in place to qualify for certain funds. The apex of journalistic acknowledgment these days, Comedy Central's “Nightly Show,” did a riff on it.

Our first story focused on former DEP employees, contractors and volunteers all saying they were told one way or another to stay away from those terms. The challenge, of course, was how to prove a negative. It helped in this case that their were eyewitnesses to that negative.

Scott responded with “it's not true” just in time for a second story quoting a former manager from the Department of Transportation and a former water management district employee, among others, reporting their experience with the ban. As Scott officials continued the denial, the Washington Post found an epidemiologist forced to take the words “climate change” out of a study done with the Department of Health. NPR found a university researcher forced to pull the phrase from a report summary for the DOT.

Further, it turns out that references to climate change in .PDF documents stored on the DEP website dropped precipitously after Scott took office. In 2010, the year before he was elected, there were 209 such references. Last year, there were just 34, all of which were recurring line items on land grants administered wholly or in part by agencies other than the DEP. Number of references so far this year? Zero.

You can still find references to climate change on the DEP's website, mostly in items or pages put up before Scott took office. Every once in a while, the phrase slips through. An annual report on coastal conditions that in 2010 referenced climate change as an “urgent” issue and a “research priority” was stripped by the 2014 version. "Climate change" appeared only when it was in the title of a previous report or conference—save for one reference buried in the middle of a sentence in the middle of the report, proof that censors take naps, too.

I asked one state employee what would get the state out of this predicament. The reply: “Well, the governor only has three more years, so that's kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel.” Another person I spoke to hoped that the chilling effect would now be on the governor's people: “They're going to have to greenwash this, to show they're working hard on this stuff.” Given this governor, that seems optimistic.

Rick Scott took office in 2011. He was the former CEO of a hospital chain that under his leadership was convicted of the largest healthcare fraud in the country at the time. He spent roughly $73 million of his own money to get elected on promises of putting Florida back “to work,” which worked. He was re-elected this past November, and while his approval ratings have been rising slightly, scandals have swarmed him. For one, he denied that he was conducting state business on a private email account, which he was. He fired the director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who latersaid Scott officials asked him for one too many off-the-books favors.

With an ex-Florida governor running for president, it's unclear what role Scott and his iffy reputation will play in the elections. But as the chief executive of the country's third largest state, his influence can't be discounted.

Democrats know this well, and already some have taken advantage of the climate change outrage. Almost immediately, the state's Democratic senators announced a series of proposals on energy issues—promoting solar power and electric cars, and opposing hydraulic fracturing. “While Governor Scott may be afraid to acknowledge ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming,’ we’re not,” senate minority leader Arthenia Joyner said in a statement.

Some legislators are prodding the bureaucrats above the muzzled employees. On March 16, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, of Tampa, pointedly questioned a Florida official during a hearing on a national plan to address climate change by cutting carbon emissions. Why, she asked, didn't his testimony mention the elephant in the room? “Nowhere in your testimony does it use the terms 'climate change' or 'global warming,'" she said. "Is that a product of Governor Scott's unwritten policy?”

“Absolutely not,” Art Graham, the chair of Florida's Public Services Commission, replied.

Two days later in Tallahassee, state Senator Jeff Clemens asked Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, whether he was aware of the new FEMA rules “dealing with climate change."

Koon said he was aware. “Future versions of our mitigation plan will be required to have language discussing that issue," he said.

“What issue is that?” Clemens asked.

“The issue you mentioned earlier,” Koon replied.

The committee members laughed, but Koon never uttered the redacted phrase. Clemens later told me: “It would be fun to try and get a different department head to say ‘climate change’ every week."

Only in retrospect have I realized the department spokespeople I've been dealing with in reporting this story virtually never use the terms “climate change” or “global warming." I was tangling with one flack who kept saying their department was working on sea-level rise issues. “I'll print that if you call it climate change,” I said. "Aw, come on now,” the flack replied. The words never passed the person's lips.