The polar bears are going to drown!
From anyone else, the statement would have produced her characteristic eye-roll at such a grandiose pronouncement and oversimplification of a complex issue. But in this instance, the speaker's argument was accompanied by a protruding lip and eyes full of unshed tears.
"The polar bears are not going to drown," Kathleen told her five-year-old daughter, as automatically as she had told the girl that Santa Claus would not burn up in their fireplace on Christmas eve or that the tooth fairy would not forget which pillow she'd left her tooth under.
"But they say the ice is melting."
She sighed, once more confronted by the irritatingly immortal "they's" of the world, this time from the lips of her young child.
"There is plenty of ice for the polar bears. Now lets get you ready for school..."
She really needed to have a talk with someone about exposing her child to this climate change nonsense. Perhaps she had heard it at school? More likely it was on the television. Children's shows really ought to stick to teaching the basics of numbers and ABC's instead of indoctrinating young minds into spurious science.
But just as hearing a few lines of a song could keep the chorus echoing in her mind all day, her daughter's words stayed with Kathleen.
The polar bears are going to drown.
Of course they weren't going to drown. The people going on about the polar ice caps melting sounded like the Chicken Little's of the world, running around, exclaiming that the sky was falling. The sky was most certainly NOT falling. And the polar bears were just fine.
Perhaps it was a bizarre coincidence, but her daughter's words seemed to invoke polar bears throughout her day. Rather than staying confined to the North Pole where they belonged, they followed her. She saw one holding a Coca Cola bottle, smiling at her
from the side of a bus. Another appeared in a newspaper article in picture, spied on someone's desk as Kathleen walked towards her office.
The final straw occurred towards the end of a long and harrowing day, when a coworker emailed her a collage of innocuous animal pictures. The animals were all babies: tiny lion cubs, curious elephants, and long-necked, lanky giraffes. They reminded Kathleen of her daughter's desire to dress up as a tiger for her upcoming Halloween party. But nestled within the other pictures was a small white bear, its black button eyes somehow demonstrating an innocence Kathleen could not explain.
The polar bears are going to drown.
She startled, turning suddenly as though she might find her daughter standing next to her desk, the prophecy having just left her lips. But there was no one there. The polar bears were not going to drown. Global warming was a myth, something scientists couldn't even agree on, let alone change even if they wanted. But for the first time, Kathleen felt uneasy with those assurances. She glanced at the framed picture of her daughter sitting on her desk.
Reaching for her phone, she pressed a button to dial her assistant. "Amy, can you find out if the National Zoo has polar bears?"
Her plan had been to pick her daughter up after school and take her to see the polar bears, but the city's zoo did not have any, as Amy informed her. And before she could consider the matter further, her day got away from itself, blessedly taking all thoughts of polar bears from Kathleen's mind. She arrived home late, whatever dinner her husband might have cooked already packaged up and in the refrigerator. Her daughter was tucked into bed, and when she stuck her head in to check on the child, she spied a new stuffed animal.
"She's been talking about polar bears all week," her husband explained later. "I thought it might make her feel better."
But the sight of her five-year-old holding a stuffed polar bear stayed with Kathleen, infecting her sleep with dreams of the giant white bears. Unlike the majestic pictures she was used to seeing in feel-good pictures, these animals were not fluffy, clean bears playing in fields of snow. Rather, they were thin and yellow, sallow creatures trying to balance on tiny wedges of ice floating in the ocean. Their eyes did not show innocence like the picture of the cub she had seen in her email, but rather sadness and despair.
The polar bears are going to drown.
The next morning, she made time to fix her daughter breakfast even though she knew it would make her late for her first scheduled meeting. The girl set her new stuffed animal on the counter beside her as she slurped cereal milk.
"I want to be a polar bear for Halloween," she declared.
Kathleen frowned, concerned that the girl was getting too wrapped up in this nonsense.
"I thought you wanted to be a tiger?" was e most leading question she could muster.
Her daughter simply shook her head. Then she reached for her new companion and hugged it to her, its shiny black eyes turned to face Kathleen. "Nope. Polar bear."
Before she could argue, her cellphone rang. The caller ID reflected the office, and Kathleen answered without a second thought. Her meeting could not be rescheduled, and she was needed immediately. Somehow in the nighttime hours since she'd left the night before and pouring milk into her daughter's cereal that morning, all hell had broken loose.
She kissed the girl on the head before driving to work. The same bus passed her with its soda-drinking polar bear on the side. But this time, the animal did not look as happy with his sugary drink. His face reminded Kathleen all too readily of her own forced smiles, the ones which were so often expected for photos, but the sentiment never reached her eyes. This polar bear suddenly looked trapped, a caricature of sentiment rather than a genuine spokesman for his species.He looked content, but Kathleen could suddenly sense what was in the background. The bus hid the melting glaciers, the vast pools of water where before had been acres of icy tundra.
Pushing such ridiculous thoughts from her mind, Kathleen proceeded to work. There were far more important things to worry about in the world than polar bears.
"Our understanding of the ways human beings disrupt the climate advances by the day. Fourteen of the fifteen warmest years on record have occurred since the year 2000, and 2015 is on pace to be the warmest year of all..."
Kathleen muted the television in her office, rolling her eyes at the speaker's characterization of perfectly normal weather patterns. People like that were the reason her daughter was so obsessed with polar bears. She was growing to personally resent such scaremongers who had nothing better to do with their time than focus on imaginary problems when the country faced real issues every day.
Thankfully, Todd entered her office with a light knock on the door, bringing her back to a world which legitimately needed her.
"Do you have a second?" the idealistic young employee asked. "I have a report here, and I know you won't agree with it. But I think you should look it over anyway."
She had hired Todd specifically because he disagreed with her so often, and also because he had a way of making her examine her own point of view. It did not hurt him that his father was an old and valuable friend.
"What is it?"
He allowed the bold letters printed on the front page of the plastic-bound document to speak for him:
Working Group Report on Climate Change
It might as well have said, "The polar bears are going to drown."
Kathleen was already shaking her head when Todd began to speak. "Just read it. Please?"
For a split second, he sounded just like her daughter asking for a second helping of ice cream, and Kathleen sighed. "Fine, I'll read it later," she said, tossing the glossy coated document onto a stack of other such reports and recommendations.
Todd paused a second more before leaving. "Please," he said again, and in his dark eyes she saw the same imploring look she'd received from the polar bear on the side of the bus that morning.
She waited until he was out of the room to reach for the report.
Halloween arrived far too quickly, and Kathleen's daughter had continued to insist on her costume of choice. Luckily, she knew someone who could sew a white-fleece approximation of a child-sized polar bear suit in time for the pagan holiday. But she suspected that her daughter would regret the decision as she stepped out into weather more suited for late summer than mid autumn.
"Are you sure you don't want to just be a ghost like last year?" Kathleen asked. "We still have the old sheet, and you'll be much cooler."
"No," the girl said stoically, stubbornly. "I want to be a polar bear."
Trick-or-treating door to door in neighborhoods was all but a thing of the past, but Kathleen had promised to take her daughter at least down the street before they set off for her party a friend was hosting. They knew their neighbors, so she had no reason to worry. But after knocking on the doors of four lit up houses, Kathleen noticed her daughter begin to walk more slowly.
"Why don't you at least unzip it?" she suggested, feeling the heat through her own capri pants and light top. Perhaps when the sun set, the temperature would ease a bit.
But the costumed little girl simply shook her head and pressed on, and Kathleen allowed her to keep the suit on until they'd finished making the rounds on their block. When they returned to the house and she strapped her daughter into the car, she pushed back the hood of the costume to see sweat beading on her overly pink cheeks.
"Oh, sweetie..." she murmured, suddenly realizing how overheated the girl had gotten. She did not even resist as Kathleen unzipped her costume and pulled her arms out of the furry white sleeves.
Thankfully, air conditioning did wonders for reviving her daughter's spirits, and by the time they reached the party, she was excited to re-don her costume before running into the house to play with the other children.
But as Kathleen followed her, she heard that unwelcome refrain in her mind, the inflection having become graver and the tone darker over the past weeks.
The polar bears are going to drown.
And instead of dismissing the words as she so often had, she thought about the facts and statistics from the report Todd had insisted she read. The scientists had treated global warming as a given, as something without any need for argument. And instead of global warming, they called it climate change, and for some reason, that designation made more sense to her.
Halloween saw the end of the polar bear craze for Kathleen's daughter, her once prized stuffed animal abandoned for a new doll with a gigantic head and made up face which would have looked more at home on a street corner in a bad neighborhood than in her child's bed. But the polar bears had not left Kathleen alone, and instead of stalking her like omnipresent phantoms blaming her for their plight, they were imploring her for help.
The polar bears were not going to drown. She had no idea when she decided that, but it was suddenly a mantra for Kathleen, something which she was reminded of every morning as she looked at the new picture on her desk - her daughter in her latest Halloween costume.
The polar bears were going to be just fine.
She left the house early in the morning, before her daughter and husband had even woken. While she often could not be there for her child in the evenings due to her work, Kathleen always made it a point to make sure the girl had breakfast in the morning before going off to school. The demands of her job sometimes made it difficult, but on this day she had to forgo that treasured time entirely.
Contenting herself that it was for a good cause, Kathleen drove to her office automatically, her mind on the day before her, for once not waylaid by the bustling and bus-filled rush hour traffic. Todd was waiting for her.
"You're on the schedule for mid-morning. Five minutes," he informed her.
"Very good," she said as he walked with her down the long corridor towards her office. There were other employees there already despite the early hour, making phone calls and moving about like ants in a busy hill.
"Do you have your speech?" Todd asked as they reached her office and she set down her bag.
Kathleen nodded and removed the few sheets of paper from inside. It was the copy he had given her the day before after they had worked together to iron out the details. She knew he could print another one in case she forgot hers, but this one had marks in the margins - where to pause, where to breath. By far and away, public speaking was not her favorite thing. But like so many other demands in her life, she had to confront difficulties in order to move forward. Somewhat unexpectedly, Todd smiled at her. "You'll do great," he said, the warm reassurance in his voice touching something deep inside of her. She thought of the polar bears.
She was next on the schedule. While the droning voices of others sometimes left her bored and on the verge of sleep, today she felt on edge. While it was not her first time, she was still so new to the occupation that each time felt both frightening and exhilarating. Having spent most of the morning practicing her speech did not help. As the time came closer, she felt her mouth go dry and her mind blank.
And then the time truly came for her to be brave, to take a risk. And in this instance, it was very much a risk. While her mind had gradually been changed, others were still firmly rooted in the beliefs she had come to question - people she respected, people she relied on for help.
But the time to worry was past. The man at the front of the room looked at her in the silent pause when the vast room around her was momentarily quieted but for the sounds of shuffling paper.
"The Chair recognizes the gentlewoman from Virginia."
"Mister Speaker," she began, taking a breath. "Today I am here to speak, not about global warming, not about climate change, but about one concern which has plagued me so greatly in recent months I am barely able to speak. I am here to share with you a concern my five-year-old daughter summarized best, as children have a way of doing. She is very concerned, and as her Congressional representative, has expressed that concern to me, that the polar bears are going to drown."
Kathleen took a breath. "And after a great deal of soul searching and not more than a little research into this issue, I must confess that I am worried about the polar bears as well. In particular-" Without stopping, she held up the framed Halloween photo of her daughter. "-I am worried about this particular polar bear and what we can do today to ensure that her future on this planet is safeguarded."