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Politicians have been known to employ an arsenal of tactics aimed at confusing the public about what scientists know about climate change: citing widely discredited experts, often paid by fossil fuel companies, or throwing snowballs on the floor of the US Senate, for example.
But, in Florida, state officials appear to be using a more blunt, Orwellian, tool of misinformation. Former employees and contractors that work with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) say they were told not to use the terms "climate change," "global warming," "sustainability," or "sea level rise" in any form of official communication or in published reports, according to a report by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (FCIR), published yesterday in the Miami Herald.
The order came shortly after Governor Rick Scott appointed Herschel Vinyard Jr. as the director of DEP, Christopher Byrd, a former agency attorney, told VICE News. At a 2011 meeting called by the DEP General Counsel, staff members were told to avoid the terms, "even in the department offices," Byrd said.
"At the time, I was representing the Coral Reef Conservation Program in Miami, and as you can imagine those words were used in our reports and presentations to the public quite often," Byrd told VICE News. "So our reaction was, 'Wow, it's going to be really hard to do our job if we have to ignore science.'"
The policy made DEP employees too "skittish" to discuss climate change, according to the report.
"There's no policy such as described in the report and the allegations aren't true," John Tupps, a spokesman for Governor Scott, told VICE News.
Tupps said he was unaware if DEP held meetings during which employees and contractors were instructed to avoid use of the terms.
According to FCIR's report, the DEP denies the policy exists. The agency did not respond to VICE News requests for comment.
A page discussing climate change and coral reefs is active on the DEP's website and was last updated in November 2011.
The prohibition on "sea level rise," at least, seems to have been lifted, according to the FCIR. In February, Scott announced that his budget would include $106 million to deal with the impacts of rising sea levels.
"There's still lots of talk about sea-level rise, which is climate change related, and that's the thousand-pound gorilla in terms of impacts for Florida," Kenny Broad, director of both the Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University, told VICE News. "I don't know if it's really going to change anything by not saying the words and I think most of the intelligent and progressive planning is happening at local levels anyway."
Southern Florida is particularly at risk from sea level rise, and has been both lauded for its attempts to address the problem and criticized for continuing to push real estate development on its threatened coasts. Miami, for example, is installing 80 new storm pumps to reduce the street flooding that now happens regularly during the highest tides of the year, but is also building the most expensive beachfront condominium in the city's history.
Sea level rise also threatens the 4,000-square mile Biscayne Aquifer, which supplies fresh water to the residents of south Florida, and can increase erosion on beaches, which could impact the state's $67 billion tourism industry.
"Many of the measures that need to be taken to adapt the sea shore are probably good investments anyway," Marilyn Brown, a public policy professor and energy expert at Georgia Tech, told VICE News. "But it makes it very difficult to make the argument if you can't talk about future trends."
In 2012, North Carolina passed a law placing a four-year moratorium on any state plan or policy that is based on projected changes in sea levels. That law has suppressed discussion of sea level rise at state agencies like the Department of Transportation, even as those agencies work to address it.
"Whatever the governments decide, the atmosphere and the oceans don't care," Klaus Jacob, a climate scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told VICE News. "They will come anyhow."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro