Obama, Climate Change and the Magicians of Egypt

Blog post by Joshua Boydstun, Rabbinical Student at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College


On June 25, President Obama unveiled his new Climate Change Action Plan during a speech at Georgetown University. The plan comprises three distinct yet related efforts to prepare for—and to mitigate, whenever possible—the effects of global climate change.

First, President Obama has vowed to pursue new industrial regulations and stricter pollution standards in order to reduce the annual output of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Additionally, he intends to sponsor the development of more sustainable forms of energy, thereby relieving American dependency on fossil fuel.

Second, the plan emphasizes the need to prepare for extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change. This includes reducing flood risk in the region affected by Hurricane Sandy and other coastal areas, as well as preparing for droughts and wildfires in the Midwest and West.

Third, the plan calls for the United States to become a global leader in climate-change action, particularly through the sponsorship and advocacy of international initiatives to reduce fossil-fuel dependency and carbon-dioxide emissions.

The logistics of the plan are clear enough on paper, but they were difficult to follow during a speech in which the president decried Republican intransigence and extolled the resilience of American industry. It comes as no surprise that the Obama Administration will face an uphill battle when it comes to implementing this plan, which right-wing commentators and climate-change deniers immediately—and predictably—denounced as a radical threat to jobs, industry and the economy. Obama’s decision to rely on executive orders to advance his plan will allow him to circumvent, whenever possible, congressional Republicans who either do not understand or do not appreciate the severity of the threat posed by climate change.

While reflecting on my own frustrations with climate-change deniers and the risk they pose to effective climate action, I was reminded of the tale of Pharaoh and Joseph (Genesis 41): In a dream, Pharaoh sees himself standing by the Nile as seven attractive and healthy cows appear and graze on the reeds. They are followed by another seven cows, which are ugly and emaciated, and which devour the seven healthy cows. In a second dream, Pharaoh sees seven good and healthy ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Behind them sprout another seven ears, which are thin and scorched by the wind, and which then swallow up the healthy ones. Pharaoh is deeply troubled by his dreams, which Joseph is ultimately able to interpret: The healthy cows and the healthy ears of grain represent seven forthcoming years of plenty, while the ugly cows and the parched ears represent seven subsequent years of famine.

Faced with this harrowing vision, Pharaoh directs Joseph to prepare for the impending famine. Joseph—a “discerning and wise man”—appoints commissioners over the land to set aside one-fifth of all produce during the seven years of plenty (Genesis 41:33-36). Ultimately, Joseph is able to rely on these grain surpluses during the famine, rationing it out to the Egyptians to ensure their survival. In fact, “the famine becomes so severe throughout the world” that “the entire world comes to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations” (Genesis 41:57).

Like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, we are faced with a set of dire circumstances. The first step is figuring out whose advice we should heed. The Torah says that of “all the magicians of Egypt and all of its wise men… none could interpret [the dreams] for Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:8). Bereshit Rabbahthe midrash or creative commentary on the book of Genesis—expands upon this verse:

Rabbi Joshua of Siknin said in Rabbi Levi’s name: There were indeed interpretations of the dream [made by the magicians], but their interpretations were unacceptable to [Pharaoh]. For example: “The seven good cows mean that you will father seven daughters; the seven ill cows mean that you will bury seven daughters. The seven full ears of grain mean that you will conquer seven provinces; the seven thin ears mean that seven provinces will revolt against you.” Thus it is written: “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain” (Proverbs 14:6a)—this applies to Pharaoh’s magicians—“But knowledge comes easily to the intelligent man” (Proverbs 14:6b)—this applies to Joseph. (Bereshit Rabbah 89:6)

The magicians and wise men were policy advisers and pundits of Pharaoh’s day, but they were unable to accurately interpret the data gathered in Pharaoh’s dreams. Rather than correctly recognizing the dreams as heralding years of abundance and famine, they misconstrued the message of the dreams as being either about Pharaoh’s individual happiness and sorrow (the birth and death of daughters) or about his position on the international scene (conquest and revolt). The welfare of the Egyptian people wasn’t even on their radar.

Similarly, climate-change deniers misread the evidence and counter it with marginal pseudoscience in order to suit their own agenda, which champions dogmatic individualism and international supremacy, while overlooking the sustainability of the United States’ food supply, the basic welfare of its citizens and even its long-term survival in the face of a looming global threat. Like Pharaoh’s magicians, they are perfect examples of the verse from Proverbs mentioned in the midrash: “A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain.” The Hebrew letz, translated here as “scoffer,” refers to an arrogant, boastful or scornful person. This seems to be just the sort of person whom Obama was repudiating when he declared:

Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here.

Even though President Obama has declared that he will not be intimidated by climate-change deniers, there remains the question of whether his Climate Change Action Plan is sufficient given the enormity of the task at hand. Given the fact that power plants account for roughly one-third of domestic greenhouse-gas emissions, the plan has placed the creation of more stringent pollution standards on the top of its agenda. So what action is President Obama prepared to take on this front? “To accomplish these goals, President Obama is issuing a Presidential Memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency to work expeditiously to complete carbon pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.”

Joseph didn’t save Egypt simply by understanding Pharaoh’s dream, or by issuing a memorandum to the farmers telling them to plan for the future. He imposed explicit targets for food reserves (one-fifth of the annual crop for seven years) and established commissioners to enact the plan. Until the details mentioned in Obama’s Climate Change Action Plan include clear emissions targets and timelines for reduction, this “Action Plan” will remain little more than an ineffectual expression of ideals and best intentions.

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