Climate Activist Who Took On BlackRock Now Takes Aim at Vanguard

Casey Harrell, the campaigner whose sustained pressure was instrumental in pushing BlackRock Inc. to act against climate change, approaches his work as if locked in a race against time. That was true even before the 42-year-old environmental activist was diagnosed last year with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Harrell’s latest effort, focused on Vanguard Group Inc., is likely to be his last.

“My diagnosis has put me on the ALS clock, which is a different clock than most people live,” said Harrell, who resides in Oakland, California, with his wife and young daughter. He works as a senior strategist for the Sunrise Project, an Australian nonprofit that fights against climate change. “I feel really connected to the urgency that others feel around a need to act on climate now, not by 2050, in a real visceral way.”

The result is a determination to do something about Vanguard, which ranks only behind BlackRock among the world’s largest money managers, overseeing about $7.2 trillion of assets. He’s working with non-governmental organizations, including Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Amazon Watch, to raise awareness about the fund manager’s climate record. The plan is to enlist Vanguard’s massive base of individual investors in the campaign, getting them to express their disquiet directly to the firm and fund advisers. That way, Harrell hopes to make climate change an unavoidable daily topic of conversation with which Vanguard has to reckon.

There’s plenty to say. The asset manager, whose late founder John Bogle invented index investing, is the biggest institutional investor in coal companies, according to Urgewald, an environmental nonprofit in Germany. Vanguard recently held $86 billion of the debt and equity of companies involved in thermal coal, compared with $84 billion held by BlackRock.

It’s also the largest investor in the 350 companies that Global Canopy, a U.K. nonprofit, has identified as having the greatest exposure to tropical deforestation in their supply chains, through sourcing items such as palm oil and timber. And that’s only part of the problem. Beyond its stakes in climate-destroying companies, Vanguard is widely criticized for not using its influence to push for lower emissions, snubbing shareholder climate resolutions and votes against recalcitrant boards.