Two small girls appeared in the kitchen. One of them looked vexed; the other looked worried.
"Can you please tell her that global warming isn't real?" asked the exasperated party.
Through my mind swept a series of possible responses. They ranged from the instinctive ("People are suffering from hysteria."), to the equivocal ("Many believe it's real and many do not."), to the blandly reassuring, ("Sweetheart, it's not something you need to worry about.").
"Why do you ask?" I punted.
"Someone told her that if she leaves a light on, a polar bear would die."
Blandness and equivocation disappeared.
"Nonsense," I told the child. "Grown-ups are investigating global warming and arguing about it. The one thing I can tell you is that you shouldn't be afraid to turn the lights on. It's not going to affect a polar bear either way."
With older children, I would have added that they probably have more to fear from ruinous fiscal policies and Islamic militants than from melting glaciers, but expanding the range of terrors didn't seem apt for this crowd.
The worried child's face cleared, and the two girls went off to play.
I tell you what, though: Adults in the grip of environmental alarmism have a lot to answer for. Whether intentionally or not -- and I suspect in many cases it's deliberate -- they've made a point of filling young lives with the threat of looming eco-catastrophe.
Innumerable children's books now sell a terrifying future to children as young as 4. The face of disaster is, of course, the polar bear; ideally, it's a white bear cub, just as cute as anything, standing on the edge of an ice floe. In Sarah L. Thompson's "Where Do Polar Bears Live?" we see the cub standing beside his kindly, anthropomorphic mother. The text warns: "If the Earth keeps getting warmer, the summer ice in the Arctic could melt completely by the time you grow up."
The cub in Jean Craighead George's "The Last Polar Bear" is heartrendingly adorable and, as the title suggests, pathetically alone. Polar bears splash through melted ice on the cover of Seymour Simon's children's book for the Smithsonian, "Global Warming."
Put aside the debate over climate science for a moment. These are adult matters, or at least they should be. It's iniquitous for grown-ups -- who themselves are roiled over the subject -- to transfer their anxieties to children who are too young to wrap their minds around the issues, let alone "save" the Earth.
It's unfair. Ultimately, it may also redound to the environmental movement's disadvantage. For just as children discover that there is no Santa Claus and no tooth fairy, they'll eventually stumble on the statistics indicating that the world hasn't warmed appreciably for a decade. In other words, today's 8-year-olds may grow up to discover that the guilt and fear perpetuated upon them in childhood were based mostly on vapor, on adult hysteria. We ought to protect them from that, at least.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at ">firstname.lastname@example.org.