Florida Governor Rick Scott’s gag order on discussing climate change in official communications has claimed its first victim, as a state employee has been banned for daring to utter the words. Although Governor Scott denies that such a ban exists, this shocking case proves otherwise.
According to scientists, the state of Florida is the most susceptible to the effects of climate change, but Scott’s solution is to simply pretend it doesn’t exist — even though 42 climate scientists sat him down in September and “gave him a talking-to,” explaining to the Governor that the “problem of climate change is not a hypothetical.”
Employees at several agencies have spoken out against the “gag order”. Bill Taylor, who was a manager at the Florida Depart Department of Transportation in Fort Lauderdale, told the Huffington Post that “it was mentioned very casually that in our future dealings with the public, we were not to use the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming.’ But it was deemed okay to talk about sea-level rise, because for some projects that had to be taken into consideration” during a 2012 or 2013 meeting.
“It was widely known that you couldn’t put those words into a report,” said a former employee at the South Florida Water Management District “They just wouldn’t make it through the editing process.”
The first victim of this policy of willful scientific ignorance is Bart Bibler. He was never told not to use “climate change” or “global warming” in an official capacity at all during his six months working for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. But on March 4, he congratulated those in attendance at a Florida Coastal Managers Forum for the “exciting” work being done to combat climate change, then mentioned his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline.
“The reaction was mostly shock,” Bibler said, noting that forum moderator Ann Lazar said she hoped his advocacy on the call wouldn’t result in cancellations of future ones.
“Obviously, she’s nervous I had violated this unwritten policy of talking about climate change,” Bibler said. “I didn’t get the memo.”
He was placed on a two-day leave, and received a letter reprimanding him for expressing his personal views on the Keystone XL pipeline. The letter claimed that a summary of the meeting Bibler handed his supervisor “gave the appearance that this was Ann’s official meeting agenda that included climate change.”
A press release from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) explained:
A Florida state employee is in hot water for speaking about climate change at an official meeting and keeping notes of that discussion in official minutes, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In response, his superiors at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued him a letter of reprimand, ordered him to take two days leave and then told him not to return until he had medical clearance of his fitness for duty.
Barton Bibler is a long-time DEP employee who now serves as Land Management Plan Coordinator in its Division of State Lands. He attended a Florida Coastal Managers Forum on February 27, 2015 at which climate change and sea-level rise were discussed among a mix of public attendees. Mr. Bibler’s official notes on this meeting reflected all of that discussion. He was directed to remove any hot button issues, especially explicit references to climate change, and then was given a letter of reprimand for supposedly misrepresenting that the “official meeting agenda included climate change.”
As he was given the reprimand on March 9th, Mr. Bibler was told to not return to work for two days which would be charged against his personal leave time. Two days later he received a “Medical Release Form” requiring that his doctor supply the DEP with an evaluation of unspecified “medical condition and behavior” issues before being allowed to return to work.
“Bart Bibler has fallen through a professional looking glass in a Florida where the words ‘climate change’ may not be uttered, or even worse, written down,” PEER Director Jerry Phillips explained. “If anyone needs mental health screening it is Governor Rick Scott and other officials telling state workers to pretend that climate change and sea-level rise do not exist.”
PEER has asked the DEP Office of Inspector General to investigate potential improprieties in the handling of Bibler’s alleged infraction.
“Not just the employees but the citizens of Florida should demand a full investigation into what the heck is going on inside DEP and whether we can expect more cases like this,” Phillips said. “Under Governor Scott, the Department of Environmental Protection functions like a gulag where those in servitude who show any spark of honesty are simply made to disappear.”
“It is not true that he was put on leave for bringing up climate change, just like it is not true that we have a policy banning the use of the term climate change” DEP spokesperson Lauren Engel said on Wednesday.
However, Phillips says that he has received more than a dozen similar complaints from DEP employees over the last five years. “The complaints have been that if climate change projects can be put on the back burner, that’s what the administration would want to have happen,” he said. “The level of fear, in my opinion, is at an all-time high at the DEP. In general, they feel they are being muzzled and cannot do their jobs.”
The Miami Herald reports that during former Governor Charlie Crist’s last year in office in 2010, “DEP’s website hosted 20 documents that contained a total of 209 references to ‘climate change.'” After Scott took office, things changed — drastically. “The numbers declined to 15 documents and 123 total references,” the Herald notes.
By 2014, “there were 16 documents with a total of 34 references to ‘climate change.’ All those documents were from other agencies, except for a DEP quick reference phone list guide that listed ‘climate change’ as a subject, and a number to call at the Office of Business Planning.”
As documents (and people) mentioning climate change disappear, one must wonder how far Rick Scott will go to enforce his anti-science agenda.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.