Emails Show Some Florida Building Officials Still in Denial About Climate Change

Late last month, Anthony Apfelbeck, a fire marshal and building official in the Central Florida city of Altamonte Springs, sent a link to a ClimateWire story about sea-level rise to a listserve for the Building Officials Association of Florida, an email group where contractors, architects, and building officials connect to answer one another's questions or pass along helpful resources.

"Interesting article in Scientific American on climate change and the response of South Florida," Apfelbeck wrote.

No one responded for two days. Then, a building official from Indian River County along the Treasure Coast broke the ice. 

"Call me a proud global warning/climate change denier, I do not care," Scott McAdam wrote. "Give me some government grants and I’ll write some reports too and create a multi-billion dollar industry."

"Bunch of baloney," he concluded.

Soon, other county building officials chimed in.

"I agree with Scott. Those climate change theories are based totally on computer models: garbage-in, garbage-out," wrote Gregory Young, a building official with Marion County Public Schools in Ocala. 

Then came Randy Jones, a code compliance supervisor with Santa Rosa County in the Panhandle: "I wasn’t going to chime in on this but now I will. Just want to say I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that doesn’t believe the climate change crap, oops theory."

The messages were troubling to another recipient of the emails, who forwarded them to New Times last week after seeing an article about an idea to charge developers for a portion of anticipated costs of sea-level rise in Miami-Dade.

"I think a lot of this is really just questioning science," says the tipster, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "I'm just disappointed."

The emails were troubling to at least one other member of the listserve — construction consultant Jerry Peck, who wrote in the email chain that it "shows the open-mindedness (lack thereof) of what should be open-minded building officials."

"No wonder the code is always playing catch-up for so long after the fact," he wrote.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Juan Zapata, who was behind the proposal for impact fees for developers mentioned in the aforementioned New Times story, says it's crucial that government officials accept and react to sea-level-rise predictions before it's too late.

"Before Hurricane Andrew, we had a cheap building code, and then we paid a price for it," he says. "The same thing happens again when you try to appease the building industry. The building industry has a lot of influence, but it's pay now or pay later."

Zapata says he's not "an antidevelopment guy" but recognizes there needs to be discussion about sea-level rise, brainstorming of possible solutions, and a plan for how to finance them.

"Our issue is we know the water is rising; we live next to the water. What are we going to do about it?" he says. "Or are we going to do what government always does and kick the can down the road and deal with it later?"

Apfelbeck, the guy who sent the initial link to the Scientific American article, responded to the criticisms in the email chain by sarcastically declaring climate change is "truly a conspiracy on a massive scale" and listing more than 30 scientific organizations that have provided evidence backing it up.

"We should be relying on the experts out there in the field," he later told New Times. "For us to ignore that is totally inappropriate."

New Times reached out to the other respondents on the email listserv to get further context to their remarks. Jones, who politely apologized for using the word "crap," says he doesn't have any scientific studies to quote but "simply just doesn't believe in it." Young says that the listserve often takes an informal tone and that the responses don't constitute official positions.

"My message stated that the climate change theories are based solely on computer models. I am unaware of any reports that actual observable evidence exists that PROVES the notion of dramatic, man-made climate change," he says in an email to New Times. "For example, the polar icecaps are actually getting larger. I do believe long-term, CYCLICAL climate change occurs, but I believe it is primarily caused by natural influences, such solar fluctuations. I do not believe man-made climate change is as dramatic as some contend." 
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Jessica Lipscomb is the former news editor of Miami New Times.