Here’s a puzzling argument that a philosopher introduced me to yesterday:

Global climate change* is a phenomenon that will undoubtedly have devastating long-term effects on the earth and its inhabitants. We (the 97%) believe that these changes are caused by humans. One simple thing we humans can do to curb climate change is reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or, we could simply go on as we currently are, doing nothing.

Wiki Commons – License: CC by 2.0 User: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden Joost J. Bakker

The decision is moral. If we do not curb greenhouse gas emissions, we will harm future generations of people. So, you might think, we should curb emissions. However, if we curb emissions, then those people — the people we will supposedly harm, if we do nothing — will not exist.

Wait, what?

That’s right. If we change our behavior in such a way that catastrophic climate change does not occur, then the people we would have harmed, had we done nothing, will not exist. Different policies will lead to different consequences will lead to different genetic combinations will lead to different human beings. So, one might ask, how can we harm future people by not curbing emissions when curbing emissions results in those very same people not existing?

Makes your brain twisty, doesn’t it?

This is an example of the nonidentity problem. You can read more about it here.

Is something wrong with the argument? If so, what?

*Side note: Climate change is a better term to use than ‘global warming’ because it encompasses all of the possible climatic changes that can (and are) globally occurring, including surface temperatures changes (i.e. global warming), precipitation pattern changes, and sea level changes.


1 Comment

  1. Everything can effect a hypothetical outcome. But, since the changes are required to maintain a sustainable ecosystem, and not just humanity, I think acting is preferable to the alternative. At some point, the environment and quality of life will be nearly if not completely unbearable to humans and most other complex life forms. Increased cancer, asthma, and other preventable health problems effecting people at progressively younger ages should be a huge red flag. Look at the declining quality of produce. Starfish on the west coast… There are lots of signs that this whole planet is unhealthy. Climate change just happens to be the most gradual symptom.


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