President Obama presented his climate change plan to the nation on June 25. He committed himself and his administration to the overarching goals of limiting and eventually stopping the buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and promised to keep the planet a viable place for coming generations to live. In his speech, Obama said:

“Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.” And: “So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.”

He has proposed the following: reduce carbon pollution from coal power plants; continue supporting and funding renewable energy; go on granting “permits” to “utility-scale solar facilities on public lands”; raise fuel standards for heavy-duty trucks; build on “efficiency” initiatives like recycling, insulation, cogeneration to further cut “energy waste in homes, businesses, and factories,” and have federal agencies put solar panels on their buildings. In other sections of the energy plan, there are proposals on helping states, cities, and town to prepare for the impacts of climate change and to have the US “lead international efforts to address global climate change.”

Obama’s plan is uplifting at first glance. But his proposals are overshadowed by the implications of other parts of his speech. The political obstacles are great, we don’t have a lot of time to accomplish what he sets out to do in his plan, and, as we learn from his speech, his commitment to oil, gas, and the clean coal (oxymoron), are not much diminished

Climate Scientists are not able to precisely tell us when the global temperature will reach a tipping point, when change will accelerate, the impacts will become ever more disruptive and damaging, and human intervention is far more costly than now, if even doable. This tipping point could happen in a decade or two, when the earth’s global temperature reaches and then exceeds 2 degree Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Renown climate scientist James Hansen concludes that a 2-degree target for global temperature rise “is a prescription of disaster” (Scientific American Blog, Dec 6, 2011). Meanwhile, the earth’s carbon emissions and average temperature continue to climb.

Another disheartening part of Obama’s climate change plan is that it continues to rely heavily on fossil fuels, despite the fact that oil, gas, and coal are the main drivers of carbon emissions, resulting in the further concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, heating of the planet, and disruptive climate change affecting all parts of the globe.

Under Obama’s new climate change initiative, regulations on new coal power plants will take effect in September of 2013 and on existing power plants by June 2014. One may wonder, however, whether the underfunded EPA has the resources to enforce new regulations? Further, the regulations don’t affect the actual mining of coal. American coal corporations are exporting more of the coal they extract to China and other countries. The emissions from coal in these other countries will not be factored in as domestic emissions, but they will go into an increasingly polluted atmosphere shared by everyone.

Regarding natural gas, Obama is and has been all along an enthusiastic supporter of deep horizontal hydrofracturing, a method to extract natural gas and oil from shale rock. The President continues to view natural gas as a clean bridge fuel away from coal. Research belies his view when the entire cycle of manufactured equipment, mining, production, and distribution is taken into account. The first comprehensive analysis of emissions from shale gas in 2011 found: “Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 10-year horizon….” The study was updated and confirmed last year (Nafeez Ahmed, The Guardian, June 26, 2013).

Supplies of relatively easily-accessed oil are becoming more scarce and more expensive to drill. Still, for example, there is plenty of untapped oil in the Arctic region, off the coasts of Alaska, and in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama continues to favor a regulatory and taxpayer-financed framework that encourages drilling just about anywhere there is potential oil.

Obama’s forthright acknowledgement of the reality of disruptive climate change and his support of renewables and energy efficiency are laudable and took some courage on his part. But, for at least the next couple of decades, economic growth within the capitalist institutional framework of the U.S. will require a large dose of fossil fuels. The alternative would require a massive transformation that is beyond existing political realities – but not impossible.