Within Australia we are experiencing higher temperatures, more severe droughts and fire seasons, and extreme wind and rain events bringing major flooding due to climate change. Hawkesbury has had frequent and severe climate related hazards over the last few years, with years of drought followed by the Black Summer Fires (2019/2020), and severe flooding in February 2020, March 2021 and in March and July of 2022. The area also regularly experiences the extreme heat of the Australian summer. During the summer of 2019/2020, Western Sydney experienced 37 days over 35°C, with Richmond recording a peak temperature of 47.4 degrees
Early in the morning as Sydney faces a day of extreme temperature and inundated with smoke
These climate-related hazards cause major impacts to our lives, livelihoods, health and well-being, ecosystems and species, economic, social and cultural assets, services (including ecosystem services), and infrastructure. The importance of addressing climate changes and their impacts proactively has never been more apparent.
To adapt successfully to the climate of the future, it is no longer suitable or appropriate to assess climate and disaster risk at an individual hazard level. We now need to assess the potential consequences of multiple hazard events occurring concurrently or consecutively and consider the compounding and cascading impacts of climate change. Our response needs to focus on opportunities to reduce the exposure and vulnerabilities of communities, services, and assets to climate-related hazard events and to increase the capacity of communities to prepare for and recover from climate change impacts. While this is a massive undertaking at scale, the first steps can be taken at the local level.
In 2022, Hawkesbury City Council engaged Mosaic Insights to update Council’s current Risk Assessment Report 2012 and Adaptation Action Plan 2016, and to consolidate them into an updated Draft Climate Change Risk Assessment and Adaptation Action Plan. Councils play a fundamental role in helping address some of the economic and social impacts of climate risks, for example by reducing disruptions to public services such as waste management, facilitating transportation access across the region, providing urban spaces that enable refuge from hazards such as heat, and protecting the valued natural places that the community uses to gather, connect, and form strong social bonds. Councils also play an important role in coordinating preparedness, response and recovery initiatives through facilitating contact and bringing different stakeholders together in disaster planning.
‘Climate risk’ refers to the potential for adverse consequences from a climate-related hazard. Climate risk is a result of interaction of climate related hazards (e.g. extreme weather events such as drought, storms, heat, floods and fires); exposure (e.g. what ‘’gets in the way of the hazard”); and vulnerability of human and natural systems (e.g. what make the impacts from the events worse). As climate hazards are very difficult to control, this Plan (still in draft at time of writing) focusses on those aspects of climate risk that are within Council control: exposure and vulnerabilities of services.
Climate risks are closely related to disaster risks. Disaster risks arise from exposure and vulnerability to current hazards in the present day, whereas climate risks emerge from exposure and vulnerability to more severe and frequent climatic events that are likely to occur in close succession in the future. Understanding and managing climate risks proactively now is essential to avoiding future disaster costs, which are estimated to almost double over next 40years(1)
This Plan takes a systems-based approach to climate risk assessment, focusing on the complex and cascading adverse consequences that may impact Council’s service delivery and capacity to progress the community’s vision and aspirations as set out in the Hawkesbury City Council Community Strategic Plan 2022-2042. A systems approach considers the interrelationships between assets (e.g. parks and gardens, roads and stormwater infrastructure), activities (e.g. community events, programs and support services) and people (e.g. staff that produce valued services for the community) and the consequences of a changing climate and extreme weather events for Council’s integrated and coordinated provision of these valued services.
Applying a systems-based approach to the Hawkesbury climate risk assessment and adaptation planning
In order to assist Council envisage climate risk beyond the 2020-2022 fire and flood events, we developed a series of plausible future climate hazard scenarios. These scenarios provided a plausible future for staff and stakeholders to consider when thinking about adaptation actions needed to reduce exposure and vulnerabilities of assets, activities and people.
Climate change hazards (and namely floods, fires, heat, storms and drought) are rarely experienced as discrete events, neatly disrupting ‘business-as usual’ one by one with a return to normality in between. Since their first adaptation plan (prepared in 2016), the Hawkesbury LGA experienced seven major natural disasters, including drought, heat, bushfires, storms and floods, compounded by the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020. Recovery from previous events was still underway as new hazard events set in. The lived experience in Hawkesbury Region is one of compounding events, occurring in close succession, which has the effect of exacerbating and accentuating impacts.
Similarly, cascading impacts significantly magnify the overall consequences resulting from an extreme climate-related weather event. For example, when critical infrastructure such as electricity and telecommunications fail, Council’s digital and information platforms that support service areas are likely to experience disruption (unless adequate back-up measures are in place). Similarly, any failure of bridges across the Hawkesbury River will have cascading effects on Council service delivery as the network of Council owned roads on the northern side of the river becomes inaccessible from the south.
Impacts may also cascade from one service area to another within Council; for example, repeated cancellation of community events may undermine social capital which in turn may increase demands on Council for emergency assistance during events. Or persistent flooding impacts to parks and gardens may have implications for planners in providing climate resilient urban spaces as overflows from sewage treatment works and public toilets shut parks and gardens, and closures to roads limits access for regular waste collection.
The frequency and severity of the climate events experienced by Council to date has had profound and lasting effects on the economic, environmental, and social wellbeing of the community and natural environment. They have also placed increased external and internal financial, social, and cultural pressures on Council as an organisation. The events of recent years have led to an increase in demand for Council services, whilst Council has simultaneously experienced a significantly increased cost burden – both in financial and human resources terms. During the engagement for this Plan, staff reported on the impacts to mental health and wellbeing as a result of the frequent and severe climate events.
This risk assessment informed the identification of adaptation measures that are foundation of the adaptation plan. The measures directly address Hawkesbury City Council’s specific exposures and vulnerabilities, and foster improved resilience in Council. The adaptation measures collectively present a new way of dealing with the increasing and complex impacts of climate change, with the aim to enhance Council’s adaptive capacity across multiple hazards, rather than respond to or ‘’treat’’ risks individually. Consistent with the Climate Change Risk Ready NSW Guide (DPE/Adapt NSW), this entails an emphasis on the strengthening of Council’s ability to manage complex risks that interact in different ways over time and under uncertain circumstances.
While the potential adverse consequences of climate risk are at the forefront of adaptation planning, it is important to emphasise that proactive action to manage climate risks also offers significant opportunity. Many of the changes that need to be made to prepare for climate change impacts can bring other benefits too, in building a strong economy, valuing and protecting environment and history, and creating a great place to live.
 Deloitte Access Economics, 2021. Special report: Update to the economic costs of natural disasters in Australia, Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience & Safer Communities