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Climate change: The $44 trillion question the GOP wouldn’t answer

Updated

In a debate framed by economic issues and hosted by a business network, only one of the leading GOP candidates took up perhaps the single biggest economic issue of the day: climate change. 

CNBC moderator John Harwood asked the right questions, pressing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for details on how he would address the problem of dangerous, man-made global warming. Experts say that greenhouse gas emissions are heating the planet, roiling the atmosphere and setting up the world economy for a $44 trillion loss unless governments act. 

But Christie declined to discuss climate change as an economic issue, opting instead to jab at Democrats, and – when pressed – the media, too. 

“Well first off, what we don’t do is do what Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Barack Obama want us to do,” the governor said, inaccurately citing “taxes” as their sole solution to escalating temperatures. “There’s no evidence that they can fix anything in Washington, D.C.”

Chris Christie, left, checks his phone in the spin room following the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP)
Chris Christie, left, checks his phone in the spin room following the CNBC Republican presidential debate at the University of Colorado, Oct. 28, 2015, in Boulder, Colo.
Photo by Brennan Linsley/AP
Hardwood jumped in again, asking Christie how he’ll fix the problem. Unlike most of the Republican field, Christie has acknowledged that climate change is real and that humans contribute to it. He also led his state through Hurricane Sandy, the weather system that walloped New Jersey in 2012, bringing winds and rain intensified by warmer temperatures. 

“What we should do is to be investing in all types of energy, John. All types of energy,” Christie said, a position that happens to echo President Obama’s own all-of-the-above energy strategy. He touted New Jersey’s status as one of the most significant producers of solar energy.

But unlike his Democratic counterparts, Christie showed no interest in cutting oil, coal or gas use, a policy that would cook the climate for decades to come. And he didn’t appreciate Harwood’s prodding. 

“John do you want me to answer or do you want to answer? How’re we going to do this?” said Christie. “Because I got to tell you the truth, even in New Jersey what you’re doing is called rude.” 

The crowed cheered. But the conversation quickly moved on, leaving the upper echelon of the GOP field with just a single answer on climate change. The lack of a robust conversation is all the more glaring given the timing.

Next month, the world’s government’s are set to gather in Paris to negotiate what is expected to be the world’s first agreement to cut emissions. And Obama has staked his second term on success not only in Paris but beyond, pledging to slash U.S. emissions by up to 28% by 2025. 

The silence is also glaring because of the steep economic costs of inaction. In June, the the Environmental Protection Agency issued a report on the worst-case scenario for global warming, a path that includes unchecked oil and coal production Christie appears to support. It predicted tens of thousands of deaths and billions in lost productivity as the U.S. succumbs to heat, drought, and more extreme storms. 

In recent weeks, most of the Republican presidential field has attacked Obama’s plan to address climate change, claiming that it will hurt the middle class and the global economy.

RELATED: Candidates clash with each other and media at latest GOP debate

But last month, Citigroup, one of the world’s largest banking and financial services companies, came to the opposite conclusion: the economy could lose at least $44 trillion if the world fails to slow the impact of global warming. 

In one scenario considered by Citigroup, the world rapidly shifts to a mix of low carbon energy, like wind and solar. In the other scenario, the world drifts along like it has for decades, using the atmosphere as an ashtray for carbon. 

“Well first off, what we don’t do is do what Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and Barack Obama want us to do …”
Gov. Chris Christie
The bombshell for the business community came when Citigroup factored in the expected damage to global GDP if the climate is allowed to warm 1.5 degrees Celsius or more above pre-industrial times. We’ve already warmed about 0.9 degrees Celsius, which doesn’t leave much more headroom for change.

At 1.5 degrees of warming, global GDP is expected to fall by $20 trillion. At 2.5 degrees, the economic damage is estimated at $44 trillion. And if the world reaches 4.5 degrees of warming – a level some scientists say we’re on pace to reach – the economic carnage would top out at $72 trillion.

Climate change did come up in the undercard GOP debate, a gathering of four candidates trailing in the polls. Former New York Gov. George Pataki and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham both acknowledged that climate change is real, and human-caused. They even said they believed the U.S. could address it without hurting the economy, a position the Democratic presidential field shares. 

The only problem is that no one seems to be listening. 

Climate Change and Republican Party

Climate change: The $44 trillion question the GOP wouldn't answer

Updated