Florida Governor Rick Scott on 23 January 2015, in Miramar, Florida. Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Katherine Bagley
16 April 2015

(Tribune News Service) – While plenty of people found humor in the recent news that officials in Florida and Wisconsin are censoring state workers' ability to talk about, much less work on, climate change, other states are not necessarily laughing. In fact, several political and environmental experts told InsideClimate News they could use it as a model to imitate.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott became the leader of this potential trend last month when news emerged that he had ordered environmental staffers not to use the terms "climate change" or "global warming" in communications or reports. Wisconsin established a similar policy this month, voting to ban staffers who manage thousands of acres of forests from working on or talking about global warming.

Experts now say that conservative lawmakers and public officials were far from embarrassed by the censorship revelations; they were emboldened by them. It could lead to a bevy of Republican lawmakers enacting similar policies in other states.

"It seems like they are dusting off a playbook from the Bush administration years," a period when federal officials removed or downplayed climate change research from government reports, said RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a super PAC that works to elect climate-conscious candidates. "I wouldn't be surprised if other deep red states follow suit."

In states with substantial conservative bases, shutting down climate action through things like censorship has become a "risk-less position for a local Republican official to take," said Walter Rosenbaum, an expert in environmental and energy policy at the University of Florida. If more leaders follow Wisconsin and Florida's lead, it "will suffocate a lot of needed public discussion on the seriousness of this issue," he said.

While the number of Americans' who accept human-driven climate change has gradually increased in recent years, the issue is still a politically polarizing one. The ideological divide is partly driven by conservatives' mistrust of science and their belief that climate action requires big-government policies. Republican lawmakers can often score big points in their districts if they hinder what has become labeled a liberal priority, experts said.

While Wisconsin and Florida are the first states to outright ban their employees from working on climate change, at least publicly, Republican legislators have long tampered with how governments address global warming. In the early 2000s, White House official Philip Cooney removed or altered climate research findings in several federal reports. In 2012, North Carolina legislators voted that sea level rise predictions be ignored for planning purposes and Virginia lawmakers voted to only approve a study of risks to the state's coastline if it didn't deal with climate change.

"This is a situation that George Orwell would have recognized," said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, referring to the author of the dystopian novel 1984. "It is very worrying that we are seeing public entities telling their employees to act like ostriches, to put their heads in the sand. Society thrives through innovation and insight, not willful blindness." [more]

Climate censorship gains steam in red states



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