Within a few decades, the seawaters around southern Florida are expected to rise by as much as two feet. Local officials anticipate billions or trillions of dollars of damage to infrastructure. By some estimates, Miami has more to lose from climate change than any other city in the world. But state leaders have a plan to deal with the problem: don’t talk about it.
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting revealed Sunday that under Governor Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has barred its employees from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in reports, emails, and other official communications. Although the DEP denies such a policy exists, former employees from various offices around the state said it was communicated verbally after Scott took office and installed a new director at the agency.
“Sea-level rise was to be referred to as ‘nuisance flooding,’ ” a former administrative assistant told FCIR. Christopher Byrd, formerly a DEP attorney, said that the Office of General Counsel told him and his colleagues not to refer to “climate change,” “global warming” or “sustainability.” “We were dealing with the effects and economic impact of climate change, and yet we can’t reference it,” said another former employee.
The reported censorship in Florida is particularly brazen, but it’s in line with the way conservatives are responding to the growing threat of climate change nationwide. It’s almost as if someone sent out a memo to skeptics suggesting that rather than deny the science of climate change outright, they simply pretend it doesn’t exist.
One example is in North Carolina, where in conservative legislators, allied with real-estate developers, passed a law in 2012 that bars the state from considering anticipated sea-level rise when crafting policy for coastal areas. Although the state’s Coastal Resources Commission expects the sea level to rise by more than three feet in the next century, proposals for development will now be considered only in light of historical data on water levels and flooding. Ignoring the projections may save the state money—and enrich the developers—in the short term, but as one critic in the state legislature put it, the state is only burying its head in the (soon to be washed away) sand.
There’s also an active campaign to suppress the climate conversation in public schools. Lawmakers in several red states have tried to block the adoption of a federal blueprint for science curriculum that includes lessons on how human activity contributes to global warming. South Carolina is weighing a revised version of the standards, with watered-down references to climate change and evolution. Most other attempts have failed, however. Kentucky Governor Steven Beshear put the standards in place via executive order after the legislature rejected them in 2013. In January, the West Virginia board of education withdrew revisions to the climate change section of the science standards after a public outcry. Legislators in Wyoming, the first state to directly bar the federal standards, recently passed a bill reversing that ban. (That doesn’t mean Wyoming’s Board of Education will necessarily adopt the standards, just that it can.)
Then there’s the way conservative politicians have taken to explaining their opposition to fighting climate change by claiming not to know anything about it. “I’m not a scientist,” Rick Scott told a reporter who asked him last year if man-made climate change was real. “I’m not a scientist,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told The Cincinnati Enquirer in October. “Listen, I’m not qualified to debate the science over climate change,” House majority leader John Boehner said in May. Louisiana governor and biology major Bobby Jindal, whose state is literally washing away, says he’ll “leave it to the scientists to decide how much [human activity contributes to climate change], what it means, and what the consequences are.”
This kind of evasiveness is perhaps a sign that the politics of climate change are shifting, if very slowly; it’s no longer easy to reject the science outright. Conservative institutions like the US military and even Big Oil acknowledge that greenhouse gas emissions are the basis of climate change, and that climate change is a threat to be taken seriously. In that context, the censorship in Florida smacks of desperation. To echo John Light over at Grist, it’s almost funny—if the consequences of inaction weren’t so dire.