DEP’s Jon Steverson repeats ‘climate change’ phrase at confirmation hearing

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Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson said “climate change” three times during a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday in response to a senator’s question about whether there is a department policy against using the phrase.

Steverson was responding to state Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Kissimmee who was wearing a climate change button on his lapel, about news reports that there is such an unwritten policy.

“I, for one, can read your pin from here so — climate change, climate change, climate change,” Steverson said. “There, I’ve said it three times.”

“There is absolutely no policy against discussing climate change at the department,” he said. “In fact, we have multiple programs related to climate change.”

Steverson, 38, was confirmed unanimously by the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation. Gov. Rick Scott appointed him in December to take over for Herschel T. Vinyard Jr., who left as secretary after the governor’s first term.

Steverson, who was executive director of the Northwest Florida Water Management District from 2012 to 2014, said the department has a climate change category within the Florida Forever land-buying program.

And he said the department is working with water management districts on the issue and has a sea-level rise working group.

“We know that’s happening,” Steverson said.

“Now, as a resident of North Florida I’m not that concerned. It means I’m that much closer to redfish (fishing),” he said, eliciting chuckles from Senate hearing audience.

“Down in South Florida, I know we have to worry about that as far as what is going to impact our infrastructure down there,” he said.

“Now if you and I were to have a conversation about global warming and maybe what you think maybe should or should not happen to our economy as that impact, we’ll probably disagree,” Steverson told Soto. “But certainly climate change is always happening. It’s always changing. And we know sea-level rise is real.”

Steverson did not say that humans are responsible for global warming and climate change, which scientists say is happening and which environmental groups have pressured political candidates to acknowledge.

“Can I be naive to think man has not had an impact on his environment? Certainly not,” Steverson told after the meeting. “But I don’t know that it’s settled to what extent man has had that impact.”

Asked whether he would consider himself a climate change denier, Steverson said, “I don’t have time to sit around and say who is a believer and who is a denier. I just have to look at the facts and move on.”

Soto said after the meeting he was satisfied with Steverson’s answers, especially compared with the “gag order-type performance” by Division of Emergency Management Director Bryan Koon in another committee meeting when Koon repeatedly seemed to avoid using the phrase climate change.

“They (DEP officials) are at least putting forward a plan to prepare for rising sea levels in Miami-Dade and South Florida generally,” Soto said. “Certainly we disagree with the cause. And I do believe global warming does exist.”

Also during his confirmation hearing, Steverson said the department proposed the bills that would establish new regulations for oil and gas hydraulic fracturing were proposed by the department. Some environmental groups who support a ban also oppose the legislation, claiming they fail to sufficiently regulate the activity.

On Wednesday, Steverson was asked by audience member Amy Datz of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida whether he could change the mindset at DEP, where she said employees fear for their jobs because they are enforcing state environmental laws.

“No, I have never fired anyone for enforcing the law, not for any job I’ve ever held,” Steverson resopnded to the Senate committee. “First and foremost I will always follow the law.

“I have never engendered a spirit if you don’t do this the way I said, you’re gone. Or if you follow the law, you’re gone.”

Steverson still has a confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections before receiving a vote from the full Senate.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee.