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“The law, in its majestic equality,” Anatole France remarked in 1894, “forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.”

Today, rich and poor Europeans alike must pay up to $4.30 for a gallon of gasoline – 70 percent of it imposed by law in the form of taxes. Truckers and farmers have taken to the streets in protest, prompting a Greenpeace spokesperson to proclaim that “prices need to rise even further,” to address the “global climate crisis.”

Here in the United States, prices of $1.30 to $1.50 a gallon and the California energy crisis are fueling anxiety, anger, editorials and presidential proclamations. But if the Kyoto Protocol on global climate change is implemented – something the National Council of Churches vigorously supports – America’s energy prices will climb toward the European stratosphere and stay there permanently, making current prices seem a distant bargain.

The prophet Micah instructed that the Lord requires us to “do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” with our God. We should resolve complex questions and conflicts, Jewish and Christian sages have taught, through experience and reason – using the intelligence and creativity with which God endowed us.

The Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship (signed by hundreds of America’s most influential religious leaders) says “sound environmental stewardship must attend both to the demands of human well-being and to a divine call for human beings to exercise caring dominion over the earth.”

At this critical juncture, as demands for immediate, drastic action on still unproven climate theories grows more shrill, it is vital that we consider these principles carefully.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has calculated that the Kyoto Protocol would exact a $348 billion penalty on the American economy in 2010 alone. It would increase gasoline prices by 50 percent, electricity bills by 85 percent, and heating oil costs by 75 percent or more.

These price hikes would result from taxes designed to “encourage” Americans to reduce their energy use “voluntarily.” In fact, we would be forced to slash our fossil fuel use by some 30 percent to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. And these taxes would hit those on the lowest end of the economic spectrum hardest of all. As the Cornwall Declaration goes on to explain, “The poor are often the most injured by such misguided, though well-intended, environmental policies.”

Former Assistant Secretary of Energy Dan Reicher said current energy prices could force low-income Americans “to choose between heating and eating.” Under the Kyoto treaty, millions more would face this stark choice, have to turn off their air conditioners during summer heat waves, their heaters during cold winter months, and be forced to buy smaller, lighter, and less safe cars.

A recent Management Information Services study commissioned by black and Hispanic business groups concludes that the Kyoto agreement would have an especially severe impact on minority communities.

More than 100,000 Black and Hispanic-owned businesses around the United States would be forced to close their doors — nearly 13,000 of them in the Miami area alone. Florida’s gross product would decline by almost $11 billion. Medical services in Michigan would cost 13 percent more than in the absence of the treaty, food nine percent more.

In Texas, more than 90,000 Blacks and 119,000 Hispanics would lose their jobs and health insurance plans – at the same time that state revenues decline by nearly $3 billion a year. The national tally? Nearly 865,000 black and 510,000 Hispanic workers would land on the unemployment roles, while average black family income would plummet $2,220 – and average Hispanic family income an even more astounding $2,725.

World War II and the civil rights movement proved that Americans are more than willing to make the greatest of sacrifices for noble causes. But one has to question whether global climate change is such a cause.

More than 17,000 scientists (including hundreds of climate experts) have signed the Oregon Institute on Science and Medicine petition, saying they see “no convincing scientific evidence” that human use of fossil fuels will cause catastrophic global warming. And both the United Nations and the National Center for Atmospheric Research have concluded that even “perfect compliance” with the Kyoto Protocol would mean average global temperatures would rise by only a half-degree less than they would have by 2050 in the complete absence of a climate treaty.

No wonder many thoughtful people have begun to question the wisdom, justification and justice of this heavy-handed approach to a global climate that has been highly changeable throughout the earth’s history.

The market already encourages wise energy conservation and the discovery of new energy sources, especially when prices rise in response to scarcity or growing demand. The free economy helps ensure that good environmental stewards are rewarded for their efforts, without imposing higher taxes on our least fortunate citizens and depriving our weakest neighbors of their most basic needs.

Michael Barkey is a policy analyst at the Acton Institute.