Politicians of both parties have learned in recent decades the perils of being seen handling a disaster poorly — as was the case with George W. Bush following Hurricane Katrina — as well as the potential dividends that come from handling a disaster well. Bill Clinton, after all, helped turn around his presidency with a resolute response to the Oklahoma City bombing.

But the politics of disaster are almost always bad news for taxpayers. After all, few leaders suffer at the polls for spendingtoo much on disaster recovery, and the regular budget-vetting process tends to break down when it comes to emergency appropriations. After natural catastrophes or terrorist attacks, the incentive is to keep the largess flowing. The problem with disaster costs isn’t just that they’re wasteful; they also reduce incentives for communities to prepare for the next big storm or other calamity.

But two recent initiatives by the Obama administration could actually help put the brakes on out-of-control federal disaster spending. The first — an executive order handed down last year ordering agencies to adopt more stringent building and siting standards in flood-prone areas — received a cool reception from some on Capitol Hill, who complained that it would kill some federal projects. Meanwhile, a new disaster “deductible” proposal for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s public assistance program could save taxpayers billions by encouraging states to invest in appropriate disaster planning and risk mitigation. Whether it faces similar pushback may depend on how skillfully it is framed.

According to the Center for American Progress, between 2011 and 2013, federal disaster spending totaled nearly $140 billion. While CAP’s number includes some expenses, like drought costs, that may stretch the definition of “disaster,” it is a good ballpark estimate. And many expenses are off the books. For example, the National Flood Insurance Program owes the Treasury more than $22 billion — including more than $8 billion rung up during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy— that every expert believes Congress eventually will have to forgive.

This growth in disaster costs is likely to accelerate, as Americans continue to move to disaster-prone areas. To take just one example, before World War II, hurricane- and flood-prone Florida was the least-populated state in the South, with just 1.9 million people. Last year, it crossed the 20 million mark, passing New York to become the third-most-populous state.

Floods account for roughly half of all disaster costs and 80 percent of all disaster declarations. Obama’s building standards order could thus save a big chunk of the $260 billion the federal government has spent on flooding over the past 30 years. It would have no impact on private property or even on local governments’ own spending. It would simply require that federal building projects meet certain flood-control benchmarks. Eight Gulf Coast Republican senators signed letters opposing the new standards, but they went forward, more-or-less intact, as part of the recent budget deal.

The more recent FEMA proposal, published in the January 20 edition of the Federal Register, would go further still in stemming the tide of federal aid by giving local governments a stronger incentive to prepare. While details remain to be worked out, the proposed program changes would ask that states, territories, and tribes do things like set aside their own disaster funds, improve building standards, or purchase privately backed insurance if they hope to receive full levels of federal aid in the wake of a disaster. Those local governments that fail to prepare adequately would be subject to a “deductible.” If properly implemented, the plan would create strong incentives for underprepared localities to get their affairs in order, as they no longer would enjoy the certainty of a generous federal bailout in the event of a disaster.

But it certainly does not help the prospects for this sensible plan that, as with the earlier building standard order, the Obama administration has sought to sell it as a “climate change” measure. While there’s little doubt that such initiatives would help to deal with climate change arising from human activity, that’s far from the only, or even the most pressing, reason to support them.

In fact, a review of the literature conducted by the Berkeley Earth Group makes it clear that the jury is still out on the link between greenhouse gas emissions and most natural disasters. Obviously, there’s no causal link between climate change and earthquakes (although some environmentalists have actually tried to claim there is). And even when it comes to more common events, like tornadoes, evidence of a direct link is close to nonexistent.

There is ample evidence that increased coastal floods have resulted from sea-level rise and that official heat waves would almost certainly be less common if there were no greenhouse gas emissions. But linkages between other disasters and climate change are harder to tease out. For example, while climate models do provide reason to speculate that hurricane formations and/or intensity might increase in the future as temperatures rise, there’s much less certainty about the frequency of storms making landfall. (Florida is now in the midst of one of its longest-ever periods without a direct strike from a major storm.) Meanwhile, analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found the 2011-2014 California droughts — which environmentalists largely blamed on climate change — were “dominated by natural variability.”

If the link between climate change and natural disasters is often overstated, the fiscal case for addressing runaway disaster spending is compelling. More people will almost certainly continue to move into disaster-prone areas no matter what happens. The new building standards and proposed disaster deductibles would cut federal spending and create incentives to prepare. To be sure, they’re “tough love” measures that an administration seeking a second term probably wouldn’t risk politically. But they should be embraced as a rare outbreak of fiscal common sense from an administration that will go down in history mostly for its profligacy.

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