When it comes to climate policy, I’m with country music singer Toby Keith: we need a little less talk and a lot more action.

So I didn’t listen to Obama’s big climate address yesterday because I already know that the president is a brilliant orator. I’m sure it was a great speech. Unfortunately, the speech didn’t say what many think it said. And it most definitely does not deserve the praise heaped upon it (here, here, here, here, and here among others) by what seems like practically every environmental group.

Sweeping rhetoric isn’t going to convince me the Obama administration is serious about tackling climate change. We need to see a coherent plan, and what we got instead was… sweeping rhetoric.

He said he’s going to allow EPA to do, slowly, what it’s been under Supreme Court order to do for years, and what he promised it would do in speech after speech in 2008. Then he said he’s going to build the Keystone XL Pipeline to move Canadian tar sands oil to market. And that’s it.

If you want proof that Obama’s announcements were mostly hot air, you need look no further than the stock market. For maybe the first time ever, I had something in common with coal company investors: we were wholly unfazed. Coal stocks had dipped a bit in anticipation of the president’s speech, but after it they were steady. In fact, most of the big coal mining firms actually saw nice price bumps in afternoon trading. [Update 6/25: Coal stocks are seeing some fall off today.]

Investors saw what I saw. That the centerpiece of his announcement was this: letting a regulatory agency use its authority—authority that was upheld by the courts, again, more than a year ago—to begin an elaborate rulemaking process that will set greenhouse gas standards for power plants that, even if they avoid delay from appeals and litigation, won’t be finalized until 2015 at the earliest. It’s hard to imagine the new rules implemented before the late-20-teens. (Over at Grist, David Roberts has excellent analysis of this.)

That’s an awfully long time before using executive branch authority to press down on coal-fired power—the single biggest contributor to US carbon emissions—especially at a time when the nation is veritably awash in cleaner and cheaper alternatives.

I’ll admit that the president does deserve a little credit for his decision to let the EPA regulate carbon from coal power. Candidate Obama seemed to support the idea, but once in office he found himself faced with intransigent congressional Republicans who vowed they would respond by gutting the Clean Air Act. So yesterday’s announcement was something of a political step forward, even though it doesn’t really count as a big policy win.

On the other hand, the president’s position is hard to take seriously when his administration is even now plunging ahead with leasing billions—yes, billions—of tons of coal on public land, much of it priced below market value and much of it destined for export, and has not even been bothering to collect the full royalty payments due taxpayers.

And that’s about it folks. That was the best part of his policy announcement today. He finally agreed to let EPA do what he promised to do as a candidate and what EPA has been preparing to do for years.

Some billed today’s event as the opening move in a three-pronged attack on climate change. Unfortunately the other two prongs of the attack consist of: 1) adaptation measures, which do exactly nothing to reduce global warming emissions; and 2) clean energy investments, which are probably fine but also do nothing to directly reduce emissions.

Then there was also a laundry list of small caliber climate policy miscellany, most of which are dandy but none of which—even in combination—take us anywhere near where we need to be to prevent serious climate disruption.

He did not so much as mention the major policy endeavors we must undertake to arrest climate change. Read the transcript, and you’ll find no mention of carbon taxes nor economy-wide binding limits on emissions. (He did make a passing reference to John McCain sponsoring a cap-and-trade bill.) He did not make mention of his administration’s shameless expansion of oil drilling leases in coastal waters and the Arctic. He did not make mention of the raft of coal, oil, and gas export schemes that speckle the nation’s coastline like a case of measles.

The main event was the initiation of a regulatory proceeding.

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  • Oh, and one more thing: he said he was going to build the Keystone XL Pipeline. Yes, I know that’s not exactly what he said, and I know it’s not how most are reporting what he said (though a few are), not even the man with arguably the world’s best bullshit detector, Joe Romm. But people, c’mon, am I taking crazy pills?

    Let’s run the tape back. Here’s exactly what Obama said:

    Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

    Let’s follow his words in slow-mo: Keystone must be found to “not significantly exacerbate the problem” before it can be built. Conveniently, that is precisely what the State Department has already decided in its (much-lambasted) draft assessment of the pipeline. And it’s the State Department in charge of permitting Keystone. (In fact, oil industry apparently sees yesterday’s speech as an endorsement of the pipeline.)

    So, yeah, he’s building it. And in case you missed it the first time, he actually said twice more. Let’s go to the tape again:

    The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

    So, the “net effects” will be “critical to determining” whether the pipeline can be built.

    The “net effects” bit is a bit of code. If you follow the pipeline debate you know that pipeline backers are constantly saying (disingenuously and incorrectly) that it won’t increase greenhouse gas emissions “on net” because the tar sands oil will just find other ways to market, whether by another pipeline or by railcar. It’s not true, but it’s a key piece of their rationalization.

    The second time is the “absolutely critical” part. The president’s statement is hardly unequivocal. Even if Keystone’s “net effects” do “significantly exacerbate” global warming, all we get is the assurance that this stuff is “relevant.”

    It’s not decisive. It’s not a litmus test. It’s not a necessary condition.

    “It’s relevant.”

    So that’s my take on Obama’s lavishly praised climate announcement: it’s a huge disappointment. It’s a glaring absence of leadership. It’s the hallmark of his administration’s signal failure to face up to climate change.

    But it’s not relevant—not to the scale of the challenge before us.