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Environmental Ethics

Volume 39, Issue 1, Spring 2017

Bernward Gesang
Pages 3-19
DOI: 10.5840/enviroethics20179261

Climate Change—Do I Make a Difference?

When an individual’s action is only one among a large number of similar actions and does not seem to make any difference to the bad collective outcome, can it nonetheless be condemned by act utilitarianism? This question has currently regained interest with papers, e.g., by Shelly Kagan, Julia Nefsky, and Felix Pinkert. Christopher Morgan-Knapp and Charles Goodman answer the question in the affirmative for miniscule emissions in the context of climate change. They use expected utility analysis as Kagan did in consumer ethics. The assumptions about the impact of emissions vary according to some underlying empirical scenarios, all of which are possible. Individual actions might be relevant in the sense of contributing to a mere linear accumulation of emissions; or they might be relevant by leading to an accumulation in the form of crossing thresholds, be it one or several, Finally, such actions might not be relevant at all. To give an answer that solves the problem and that is based solely on expected utility analysis is impossible. Therefore, the view of Morgan-Knapp and Goodman must be rejected.