As described in a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is prohibited by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in any official capacity. Tristram Korten, who spearheaded the investigation, explains how it has affected the procedures and publications of scientists in the state.
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Bob Garfield: Remember the mayor of Amity Island, in the movie Jaws? He was played by Murray Hamilton, in a gathering panic. The only thing louder than his resort wear was his opposition to using incendiary language like “shark” and “eaten alive.” Scares away the tourists.
It’s gonna be one of the best summers we’ve ever had! Now if you fellas are concerned about the beaches you do whatever you have to to make them safe. But those beaches will be open for this weekend!
The Great White maneater, to the mayor of Amity Island, was what you’d call an "inconvenient truth." The most famous inconvenient truth, of course, is global warming -- although, here again, you’d never get an official of the state of Florida to say so. As described in a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is prohibited by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in any official capacity. Instead environmental officials are reduced to using euphemisms such as “nuisance flooding.” Tristram Korten is a journalist for the Florida Centre for Investigative Reporting, he spearheaded the investigation. Tristram, welcome to On the Media.
Tristram Korten: Thank you very much.
Bob Garfield: Give me a brief overview of the effects so far of global climate change on the state of Florida?
Tristram Korten: As Rick Scott said, I'm not a scientist. But we're facing a lot of obviously sea-level rise, this is leading to the threat of saltwater incursion into our freshwater supply, a lot of our native flora and fauna, especially marine-based, face devastating effects like coral reefs I'm told, it's the number one threat to them and they're already endangered. Florida is looking at having to outlay a fair amount of money to protect its infrastructure: roads, seawalls, property. They're going to have to come up with plans to help protect all of this.
Bob Garfield: To protect the citizens, but also to protect what is probably the biggest industry in the state of Florida, which is?
Tristram Korten: Tourism.
Bob Garfield: Aha! Tourism. Just like Amity Island. Is it as simple as that, that the state that so depends on tourism and the real estate industry, just doesn't want to frighten away outsiders with scary terms like climate change?
Tristram Korten: So the governor's office gave us a few-word response: There is no policy. And the Department of Environmental Policy gave the exact same wording: there is no policy. And by which they are technically accurate, there's no written policy. You know, what we discovered was all communicated verbally.
Bob Garfield: So what did you discover? You do have people telling you what they were told not to tell you?
Tristram Korten: A local conservationist, who writes a monthly column in the monthly Biscayne Times newspaper, approached us and said listen, this has happened to me twice, that I've been told by the DEP not to use these terms. And the first time was when he was contracted by the DEP to write a series of educational fact sheets about coral reefs and the threats they face. He and his partner wanted to use climate change and it was taken out of their report, and they were told not to use it. And then he volunteered to take a slideshow essentially to community groups to threats faced by coral reefs and in this case, they sent him an email saying, you can't use it, if you do use it, you gotta make clear it's not coming from the state. So then I just started calling ex-employees. A former attorney in the office of the General Counsel for the Department of Environmental Protection said absolutely, I was told at a staff meeting by my supervisor not to use these terms, shortly after Rick Scott was elected and shortly after he appointed Herschel Vinyard as the director of the DEP. One ex-employee said that this was known as a department-wide policy and it interfered with reports that this person was writing about the economic impacts and how to address them. And yet she couldn't use the term.
Bob Garfield: Now this strikes me as a kind of Orwellian approach to language, and it could have a couple of explanations. One is the Jaws scenario, where the Scott administration just doesn't to scare away tourism and investors in Florida real estate. And the other is a pure political matter. Most of the Republican party, of which Scott is a member, refuses to embrace that global climate change is significantly man-made. And to use terms like global warming could be seen as betraying one of the major planks of the party platform. Is that what's going on here?
Tristram Korten: I don't think the two potential drivers of this that you described are exclusive. I think that there's a lot of fear about the impact global warming will have on industry and tourism and real estate in this state. It may very well be they don't want to send people into a panic. And that damping down these terms in official communications is going to help accomplish that.
Bob Garfield: Now, euphemistic language is one thing, policy is another. Did you discover any evidence that the degrees to which the state strains not to speak the obvious allowed also causes them to pull their punches in environmental protection itself?
Tristram Korten: That is the 60-thousand-dollar question. Now in this story we really had to spend all our effort trying to verify essentially these semantics. We're going to have to take a look at whether or not essentially this attitude has impacted the policies that are going to get us prepared for these changes. It seems logical to assume that even if you're working on this stuff, the fact that you can't use these other terms, makes you that much less effective, right? So you could be that much better if you were able to just state straightforwardly, what is accepted science.
Bob Garfield: Tristram thank you so much.
Tristram Korten: Thank you very much for having me.
Bob Garfield: Tristram Korten is a journalist for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.