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National security expert warns that extreme weather threatens democracy

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Billions of people around the world are expected to vote in elections this year. And some national security professionals warn that there's a growing threat to these elections, one that is on par with disinformation, foreign interference and even the threat of political violence. We are talking about extreme weather. Alice Hill is the former senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. She and coauthor Karen Florini recently wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs entitled "How Climate Change Threatens Democracy." Alice Hill, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ALICE HILL: Oh, thank you, Scott.

DETROW: I just want to start off by clarifying here, we are not talking about a piece on climate change as an issue affecting voters and policies. We are talking here about the specific threat of extreme weather threatening the functionality of elections.

HILL: Yes. There are many threats to elections, but this is one that's underappreciated.

DETROW: What got you thinking about this?

HILL: Watching what was happening in the news and appreciating that climate change makes wildfires worse, flooding worse, sea level rise - all of those things affect the ability of people to move, including to get to their polls and have their ballots counted.

DETROW: So you're arguing that extreme weather is a threat to democracy. I mean, those are pretty strong words. Can you explain what you're thinking?

HILL: When you step back and appreciate democracy, what is at its core? It's the right to vote. That's the most fundamental right each of us have in a democracy. If you can't cast a ballot and have that ballot be counted, you're disenfranchised. Climate change disenfranchises voters.

DETROW: What are some of the examples that you think are top of mind when you look at how extreme weather has really affected elections in recent years?

HILL: Well, we have one that just occurred in India. You know, India can choose its time of elections. They just closed their elections. Of course, Modi was reelected. But during the multiweek process in which each Indian is voting near his or her home, we saw that 77 people died. Thirty-three of those were pole workers. People were fainting. They decided not to vote simply because there was extreme heat in India, and now we have attribution science that can indicate that that heat was worsened as a result of climate change. But we have other examples that have occurred in other places around the globe. This is not a singular phenomenon. It's just multiplying as climate change accelerates.

DETROW: We've been living with more and more extreme weather, and I think it's fair to say we will continue living it - with it for a very long time. So given this reality of extreme weather, whether it's wildfires or flooding or extreme heat, what are some of the solutions that you think people should be thinking about when it comes to making sure they don't inversely affect elections?

HILL: Well, voters can try to take advantage of the multiple opportunities that some states in the United States give to register by mail, to vote by mail, but we also need election officials to step up. They have to move beyond ordinary emergency planning and start using the multiple tools that are out there, including one sponsored by my coauthor's organization, Climate Central, that looks at flood risk, for example. Don't put polling places in places that are destined to flood or in areas where transportation will be underwater. Similarly, it's thinking through how will we help people who may lose their documents or be displaced in a wildfire or in a flood, making sure that everyone can cast their ballot in a way that the ballot gets counted. But that requires planning in advance and not just reacting to events as they unfold.

DETROW: I mean, we just had a national election here in the U.S. that was made a lot trickier by a global pandemic, and we saw a lot of work-arounds and a lot of one-time policies put in place. And we saw how politicized and controversial that became. I think a lot of the things you're talking about, on one hand, you could hear it and say, makes sense, on another hand, you can look at it in the current political environment and think that would be a hard sell at the moment.

HILL: Well, of course, we've had a lot of attention about changes to voting procedures. But if - to the extent that these are put in place in advance, they should benefit both parties - all political parties in that they make sure that the people who intend to vote can vote. It will be a hard sell given the political divide on whether climate change is occurring and how severe it is.

DETROW: But it's not just that. It's not just that. We've seen how the basic idea of voting by mail has become an incredibly partisan thing.

HILL: Absolutely. So it is going to be a harder sell. But just as with all things, it's better to plan in advance. We know that making investments in pre-disaster reduction of risk saves money. It also will allow people to be able to vote. We don't know who is disenfranchised by this. We've seen some studies that say wealthier communities, for example, during Sandy may have had a lower turnout. You'll recall during that presidential elections, there was fear that Superstorm Sandy would affect voting.

DETROW: This was the November 2012 storm, that I think, in terms of the narrative of the election, in terms of the nuts and bolts of voting, arguably did have a big role in it.

HILL: Yes, and there's been some academic studies. It's difficult to determine what the voter turnout is in response. The analysis right now for India is maybe there was a lower voter turnout. Maybe that was because of heat, but we can't definitively say that.

DETROW: Yeah.

HILL: What we can say is that some people who wanted to vote didn't have the chance to vote. And that's when democracy's undermined.

DETROW: Last thing I want to ask about is so many of our election laws and policies play out at the local level and different parts of the world, different parts of the country have different extreme weather to think about. Just looking at the U.S., taking in mind, you know, the different regions and different challenges, are there one or two things that you think that election officials should be thinking about differently when it comes to extreme weather?

HILL: I think they should increase their coordination with emergency managers, make sure that there's backup power for polling places and think about introducing greater flexibility in how ballots are cast. We're seeing that worldwide - new innovation, mobile voting units, vote by telephone - occurring in different locations, but we need to make it so that we're ready to take advantage of these procedures in advance, rather than scrambling during the course of elections and then increasing the claims that the election was unfair.

DETROW: That's Alice Hill, senior fellow for climate and energy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you so much.

HILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.