September-October 2021

The activists

Two sisters from Rockville are fighting to save the planet

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Rosie (left) and Eleanor Clemans-Cope, who are passionate about climate action, have participated in protests and spoken out on the need for change. Photo by Liz Lynch

Thirteen-year-old Rosie Clemans-Cope is scared that climate change will destroy homes, wreck the land and kill billions around the world. “People in power right now are just not doing enough,” she says. “I don’t understand how you can ignore such a huge and devastating problem that is threatening so many people.”

That’s why Rosie and her 17-year-old sister, Eleanor, both of Rockville, joined hundreds of young environmentalists on a sunny June afternoon in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., to march, wave signs and chant: “What do we want? Climate action! When do we want it? Now!”

The protesters were urging the Biden administration not to compromise on climate provisions in a federal infrastructure bill. Dividing into groups, they blocked entrances to the White House. At one gate, the sisters, slathered in sunscreen and sitting on jackets to protect themselves from the hot pavement, joined others prepared to risk arrest for nearly three hours in the 90-degree heat. The mood that afternoon was a mix of “righteous anger” and “joy as a collective” as the protesters sang about choosing sides in the climate war, says Eleanor, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.

“We gave [President Joe Biden] a climate mandate, and we need him to follow through,” she says. “He should be working with the people who elected him—young people who made so, so many calls for him, the climate activists who got out the vote.”

Last year, Eleanor was arrested during a climate protest at the U.S. Capitol, and Rosie, an eighth grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, says she is not afraid of having the same thing happen to her. “I’m ready to put my body on the line for the future of this world,” she says. “If we can get a critical mass of people to stop injustices around this issue, we can do anything.”
Rosie was inspired to get involved after watching a PBS NewsHour story three years ago about teenage activist Greta Thunberg holding a solo climate strike in Sweden. “I thought how powerful it would be if kids all around the world did the same thing and acted in solidarity,” she says. Eleanor says Rosie convinced her to get on the “climate train” by explaining that the environment affected other issues that she cares about, such as achieving racial, gender and economic justice.

Eleanor (left) and Rosie at the Montgomery County Executive Office Building in Rockville in April. Photo courtesy of Craig W. Carlson

The sisters have participated in local protests to pressure Montgomery County to strengthen its Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by including timelines and projected costs. In 2019, the teens spoke at the U.S. Capitol during an international youth climate strike day. Rosie and Eleanor also are involved in Sunrise Movement, a national group of young climate activists, and have protested with others outside the homes of County Executive Marc Elrich and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan.

“We are committed to the theory of change that we must disrupt the system in order to change the system,” says Eleanor, who spent hours reviewing and summarizing the shortcomings of the county’s Climate Action Plan. The sisters’ activism takes up much of their spare time, though both also are involved in debate clubs, spend a few hours daily playing the violin, and enjoy hanging out with friends.

Their family has long been involved in activism, and the sisters say some of their earliest memories are of joining their parents at protests for women’s rights or against gun violence. Together, the family has learned about the science behind climate change, but the girls have taken the lead on the issue, says their mother, Lisa Clemans-Cope, an economist at the Urban Institute. Their father, Keary Cope, is a scientist at the National Institutes of Health.

The sisters believe they can leverage their youthfulness when making the case to protect the environment. “Young people have the moral authority. The younger you are, the more drastically you will be affected by climate change,” Eleanor says.

Rosie has organized weekly climate “strikes”—events during breaks in the school day—since fifth grade as part of a movement called Fridays for Future. The gatherings at Pyle were moved online after schools closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic. Pyle teacher Zach Tilkens, the faculty sponsor of the Friday strikes, says he was impressed with Rosie’s organization of the sessions. “I was in awe,” he says. “She brought in information from poets, social media and news stories—making it relevant.”

In pushing for the county to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adopt a local version of the proposed national Green New Deal, the girls have worked with leaders of local environmental organizations such as Bethesda resident Jim Driscoll, 76, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion DC, which is part of a global environmental movement. He also coordinates a group associated with the movement in Montgomery County.

“Young people get it…old people are sending emails and having meetings,” Driscoll says. “[Young people] raise the issue and they get publicity. If the council and the [county] executive paid as much attention to Rosie and Eleanor as the whole world has paid to Greta Thunberg in Sweden, then Montgomery County would be a model for the rest of the world.”