A group of more than 30 people protested in downtown Silver Spring on Saturday, demanding that Montgomery County leaders take bolder action on climate change. Credit: Photos by Dan Schere

This story was updated at 10:10 p.m. Dec. 5, 2021, to add comments from Hans Riemer. It was updated again at 9:40 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2021, to add comments from Marc Elrich.

As a group of more than 30 environmental justice protesters marched into a busy Silver Spring intersection Saturday morning, a driver became perplexed, honking their horn repeatedly.

From the back of the car, a passenger shouted “get out of the way” several times. Some people in the protest group stood in the middle of Fenton Street at Ellsworth Drive for several seconds, then cleared the intersection. The driver went on their way.

The moment might have served as a metaphor for what the group thinks is amiss in Montgomery County: Public officials aren’t following through on promises made in the last four years to address climate change and are ignoring their voices.

Protesters block traffic on Fenton Street in Silver Spring as a car tries to get through.

Among their demands to county officials were to reduce carbon emissions, embrace a Green New Deal and divest from fossil fuel companies.

The Rev. Jane Batt of the Takoma Metaphysical Chapel dressed in green and wore a facemask with a rainbow that said “In this together.” She carried a blowup globe and a sign that said “Neuvo Trato Verde Ahora,” which is Spanish for “Green New Deal Now.”

The Rev. Jane Batt

Batt said that it’s difficult for people in the county to feel like their leaders are doing enough on climate change.

“My sense is that the elected officials are well-meaning. They have a lot on their plate. Their to-do-list is very long, and then all of a sudden, the planet is in huge trouble,” she said. “It’s difficult for them to put it in as a priority among all the other practical things they’re doing, as well as wanting to get re-elected.”

Among the signs protesters carried Saturday were ones directed at County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker, which included their pictures.

Hucker, Riemer and businessman David Blair are challenging Elrich in the Democratic primary in next year’s county executive race.

David Goodrich, a Rockville resident, noted that the County Council passed an emergency climate mobilization resolution in December 2017. It urges other governments to join the county in trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2027 and by 100% by 2035.

“There has been very little action, as far as climate goes, by the County Council [or] by the county executive,” Goodrich said.

“What we’re trying to do is put some meat behind the idea that there is a climate emergency, and there are lots of things we can do about it.”

Goodrich pointed out that Elrich voted for the climate mobilization bill four years ago as a council member.

He said the county could take a step in the right direction by divesting from its fossil fuel company holdings. The council passed a resolution in May 2017 that encouraged managers of the county’s retirement funds to divest from fossil fuel companies.

Elrich told Bethesda Beat on Monday night that one reason the county hasn’t been able to do more on climate change is because the council has only funded the budget enough to maintain current services during the last two cycles, without including funding for new initiatives.

“Even the little stuff we could do if we could figure out where the money’s gonna come from, we haven’t been able to do,” he said.

Elrich pointed to actions such as the purchasing of electric buses and a community solar project at a Silver Spring apartment complex as examples of areas where the county has made progress on climate change.

“We continue to do everything we can do with the resources that are available to us. I wish we had more resources,” he said.

When asked about divesting from fossil fuel holdings, Elrich said he supports it, and again blamed the council.

“We had a candidate that we wanted to add to the [retirement] board who supported divestment. The council didn’t support that candidate either,” he said.

Elrich declined to name the candidate his administration had nominated, saying he didn’t want to “drag them through this.”  

Riemer told Bethesda Beat on Sunday that he agrees there hasn’t been enough action on climate change. He noted that he had pushed for a proposal to power 50,000 homes in the county’s agricultural reserve with solar power. The council, instead, approved a more limited expansion of solar farms earlier this year.

“Unfortunately, that was thwarted, but we’ve got to try again with that. We’ve got to get curbside composting. We’ve got so much work to do with clean energy,” he said.

Riemer said the county needs to prioritize shifting the electrical grid to green energy and expanding the use of electric vehicles. Asked about the proposal for divesting from fossil fuel companies, he said the county “can look at that,” but he would prefer to focus on reducing emissions.

“We’ve got to do things that actually move the needle on reducing our emissions. And that’s all about generating clean energy to shut down fossil fuels,” he said.

Hucker could not immediately be reached for comment Saturday afternoon.

Anne Manuel, a Silver Spring resident, said it “seemed like a great thing” four years ago when the council declared a climate emergency.

“It was like, ‘Wow, look at this victory. Fantastic.’ Little did we realize how hard getting the action to follow it would be,” she said.

Saturday’s protest also included students from several county high schools, including Hasham Khan, a 17-year-old senior at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg.

Khan said he wants county officials to do more to embrace the Green New Deal, including cutting carbon emissions and making public transportation more accessible.

“We have to know that this is a problem that we can’t escape, and it’s horrifying that people aren’t taking action on it,” he said.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com