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Here's what the Tampa Bay region has to learn about climate change from the Netherlands

Henk Ovink of the Netherlands, an expert on climate change, found a willing audience in Pinellas County. [Southern Alliance for Clean Energy ]
Published May 28

ST. PETERSBURG — Henk Ovink realized about 30 seconds into his climate change talk that he was probably preaching to the choir.

He had come to the Hilton Carillon on Wednesday at the invitation of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council to give a presentation about how local governments can prepare for climate change. As the Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the the Netherlands, Ovink had some thoughts about how the Tampa Bay area can learn from the Dutch experience.

"We're in the same boat," Ovink said after alluding to studies that have listed the Tampa Bay region as among the most vulnerable in the world to climate change. "We better learn from each other."

The history of the Netherlands, Ovink explained, is one of climate adaptation. About one-third of the land area of the country lies below sea level. The nation founded its first regional water authority almost 900 years ago.

A series of 20th-century floods taught the Dutch that rebuilding existing infrastructure after a catastrophe is not enough, Ovink said. Instead, the country's officials try to proactively plan for the worst using the best available knowledge. Barriers that were built after the disastrous 1916 floods may not suffice today, Ovink said. But they were a start.

The Dutch official also made the case that the Netherlands' best adaptations to rising seas came from collaborations between government, scientists and businesses. He showed the audience a photo of protective dikes built into coastal dunes in Katwijk aan Zee. Inside the dunes is a parking garage. The dunes protect the ecosystem; the dikes protect the people; the parking spaces protect the bottom line.

Ovink concluded his hourlong talk by complimenting the Regional Planning Council's recent climate change planning efforts. In 2018, the council formed the Tampa Bay Regional Resiliency Coalition, which hopes to bring together the public and private sectors to plan for climate change.

Read more: Climate change is here. Will Tampa Bay finally get ready?

"Getting together on the scale of Tampa Bay is exactly the way forward," Ovink said.

The Regional Planning Council rented out a $3,000 event space and brought in Ovink to educate. But he did more than that: Wednesday morning's event also felt at times like a cross between group therapy and a pep rally.

"Do we need to talk about climate change?" Ovink asked the audience of about 80 at one point. "We agree it's there, yeah?"

The audience gave a resounding "yes."

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide are raising the earth's temperature, causing seas to expand and rise. Extreme weather events are getting more extreme, and every new year seemingly brings new record high global temperatures.

In the first half of his talk, Ovink laid out the dark future of a world that fails to adapt. He cited an MIT Technology Review article that warns of the coming climate "apocalypse." In discussing the Tampa Bay region, Ovink pointed to a group of local scientists' most pessimistic sea level rise projections.

Read more: A group of scientists just presented updated sea level rise projections to Tampa Bay politicians. Here's what they say.

His metaphors about climate change veered into some dark places:

"This is like when you bring your granddaughter to bed after she stayed with you for a weekend, and it's a Sunday night and you tuck her in and you say 'did you have a great weekend?' And she says, 'yes,'" Ovink said. "And you think, 'You better. Because tomorrow is worse.'"

The audience seemed to be on board with Ovink's blunt assessment. During a question-and-answer session after the talk, audience members vented their frustrations about the politicians who are unwilling to acknowledge the threat of climate change.

"We have the most regressive government right now," Dayna Lazarus, an urban and regional planning masters student at the University of South Florida, told Ovink.. "People are voting for these people who are not going to do anything you just said."

Ovink acknowledged to Lazarus that the Netherlands has different political values than the United States. But he argued in a subsequent interview that planning for climate change at any level that brings people together is worthwhile.

The Regional Planning Council is comprised of elected officials from the broad area that stretches from Manatee County to Citrus County. Only a few — from Dunedin, Oldsmar, Pinellas County and Safety Harbor — attended Wednesday's event.

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said she'd need the public's help to convince those skeptical about the dangers of climate change.

"I'm standing here and I'm looking at this room and I'm thinking, 'Well, where is everybody else?'" Long told the audience. "So now you have a responsibility to go out and talk about what you've learned today."

This story has been updated to reflect the following correction: About two-thirds of the land mass of the Netherlands lies at or above sea level. A previous version of the story incorrectly characterized the percentage of the country that lies above sea level.

Contact Kirby Wilson at kwilson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8793. Follow @kirbywtweets

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