World

Casey Harrell: the climate activist taking on Wall Street – and the muscle-wasting disease that’s killing him | Climate crisis

Two months into the pandemic, Casey Harrell was recognized with the neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The 43-year-old climate activist began noticing signs in 2019, shortly after the beginning of his daughter, Aya. At first, a physician thought he had a muscle-twitching situation that might go away on its personal. Then, he examined optimistic for Lyme disease, which may mimic the early signs of ALS. However, as the world closed right down to cease the unfold of Covid-19, neurologists concluded his worsening limp and cramps had been the early indicators of the muscle-wasting sickness, for which there isn’t any treatment. He may count on to dwell between two and 5 extra years.

After a brief break, Harrell threw himself again into his work, pushing for BlackRock, the largest asset supervisor in the world, to make use of its monetary may for the good thing about the planet. “That is an all-hands-on-deck second in human historical past. Everybody that may must be combating for a livable climate and a wholesome biosphere,” says Harrell. “My ALS prognosis has not modified that in any respect, it has solely strengthened inside me [the need] to do the work with urgency as a result of my ALS clock could imply that I don’t dwell so long as I had hoped I might.”

BlackRock’s Big Problem (BBP), the marketing campaign Harrell co-designed and launched in September 2018 with a coalition of NGOs, has performed a key position in capitalism’s ongoing environmental reformation, pressuring the agency and its CEO founder, Larry Fink, to take the climate crisis extra critically.

Guardian 200

Though comparatively unknown exterior monetary circles, BlackRock, along with its rivals Vanguard and State Street, are the largest shareholders in nearly each main firm in America in addition to being main traders in a lot of non-US corporations too by advantage of managing different individuals’s cash, from oligarchs to conventional “mom-and-pop” traders. Their votes on board members are sometimes influential, as are their positions on social points, from the atmosphere to gun possession.

By means of BBP, Harrell and his community focused the obvious disconnect between Fink’s public feedback on the climate and the asset supervisor’s actions. The 69-year-old had positioned himself as the conscience of Wall Street in the years since the monetary crisis, as BlackRock has expanded at a ferocious tempo. Final October, he dined with the Queen and the prime minister at the UK International Funding Summit and attended Saudi Arabia’s flagship funding convention, sometimes called “Davos in the Desert”, a key a part of Mohammed bin Salman’s rebranding of the kingdom. He additionally attended Cop26 in Glasgow and was a speaker at the parallel Inexperienced Horizon Summit. Fink’s annual letter to chief executives in January tries to set the tone of the yr forward and, in 2018, he informed enterprise leaders to contribute to society or threat shedding BlackRock’s help, written up in the New York Occasions as “a watershed moment for capitalism”. Revenue was not sufficient.

Tariq Fancy, who was BlackRock’s chief funding officer for sustainable investing when BBP launched, stated the marketing campaign had an affect at the highest degree of the firm. He has just lately denounced his former employer’s inexperienced credentials, insisting the sustainable investing merchandise he used to supervise are a harmful distraction from actual motion. “[BBP] challenged the narrative that had been creating since Larry’s letter in 2018 that BlackRock was on the proper facet as a climate crusader.”

Nevertheless, the asset supervisor continued to overwhelmingly oppose shareholder motions calling for climate motion at fossil gas corporations and different main polluters. BBP – born by way of discussions between John Hepburn, head of The Dawn Venture, an Australian NGO, and Harrell – sought to spotlight this mismatch, focusing on like-minded staff at the asset supervisor. Three years on, the AGM season on Wall Street has turn into the frontline of climate campaigning. Fink has put motion on international heating at the core of BlackRock’s investing operation and his annual letters have turn into progressively extra centered on the climate. On 26 Might this yr, dubbed “Black Wednesday” for the oil and gasoline trade, BlackRock voted to oust two ExxonMobil board members in favour of candidates pushing for the firm to take the climate crisis critically. The identical day, greater than 60% of Chevron shareholders backed a movement for the firm to chop emissions.

However as BlackRock edges in the direction of the incomprehensible milestone of $10tn property, with sustainability now at the coronary heart of its enterprise technique, Harrell is near shedding the means to talk. The unassuming, obsessive strategist now makes use of a wheelchair and can not choose up or play along with his daughter. As soon as recognized for his means to carry a room’s consideration with highly effective monologues, he’s typically inaudible and is compelled to condense his ideas into quick sentences. Easy duties have turn into prolonged and painful, and the concern of one other lack of bodily operate loss lurks. The motor neurone connection to his diaphragm has degraded to the level the place he can not proceed in a promising drug trial. A crew of buddies and neighbours coordinate his care by way of a WhatsApp group, serving to him eat, write emails and condense long-winded anecdotes, which Harrell perseveres with no matter his sickness.

“There’s a second each morning earlier than I attempt to transfer after I get up and I overlook I’ve ALS. It’s the greatest second of the day,” says Harrell. However there isn’t any suggestion he’s going to cease campaigning.

In March, BBP introduced it was turning its consideration to Vanguard, the second largest asset supervisor on Wall Street, overseeing a mere $7tn of property, and a giant investor in coal in the world. “Vanguard’s Very Big Problem” is prone to be his final marketing campaign, devised along with his colleague Diana Finest, Harrell’s “all-time favorite co-conspirator”. Fink’s equal at Vanguard, Tim Buckley, is publicity shy and Harrell thinks he’s deliberately “boring”, presenting a snug, uncontroversial picture that they’re making ready to problem. Vanguard has stated it’s concerned in the in the Internet Zero Asset Managers initiative, including that: “Our expertise exhibits that partaking with boards and corporations as they work by way of the transition to a decarbonised economic system can scale back climate change threat and ship extra long-term sustainable worth.”

Harrell insists BBP isn’t performed with BlackRock however he’s glad with the agency’s route of journey. BlackRock has stated it should announce earlier than the finish of the yr a 2030 net-zero coverage and what proportion of property it should cowl (BPP is advocating for 100%). Any deviation would break Fink’s legacy, he thinks.

“There’s a dominant narrative that, to create change, there’s a hero, the hero does the one factor and the one factor creates the change. That’s utter bullshit,” says Harrell’s spouse, Levana, an educator and fairness guide, in addition to Harrell’s major carer. “It takes mass mobilisation, and mass mobilisation takes intense effort.” The couple and Aya moved from their residence in Oakland to a flat after he began to wrestle with the stairs. “As a lot because it hurts, I additionally care about the planet. I wish to see him win.”


Harrell, with his wife Levana and their daughter Aya.
Harrell, along with his spouse Levana and their daughter Aya. {Photograph}: Carolyn Fong/The Guardian

Harrell may simply have discovered himself sat in the chairs of the executives he now holds to account. A valedictorian at highschool, he studied at Duke College, opting in opposition to a spot at Brown College and the exterior likelihood of a profession in main league baseball. As a substitute, he immersed himself in scholar activism – testifying in Congress as a part of the College students In opposition to Sweatshops marketing campaign.

In 2002, as a younger Greenpeace activist, Harrell tried a citizen’s arrest on Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide, who, at the time, was dealing with murder fees in India in reference to greater than 14,000 deaths following leaks from the firm’s pesticides plant in Bhopal in 1984. Extra just lately, he co-led a marketing campaign to get Fb, Google and different Silicon Valley behemoths to drop coal energy and use 100% renewable vitality for his or her datacentres. All of them finally succumbed to the marketing campaign calls for.

A number of weeks after his prognosis, these closest to Harrell had been requested to dwell with two contradictory truths: that he’ll by some means journey the wave of latest drug discoveries, enhance and recuperate, whereas additionally figuring out his physique will most certainly fade away. The outlook for somebody with the disease in the US, the place it is called Lou Gehrig’s disease, has not improved since Gehrig, a former New York Yankee first baseman, died from the situation in 1941. Harrell additionally advocates for entry to drug discoveries that might gradual or halt the development of ALS and even type a bridge to a future treatment. He has mapped out a collection of drug trials and bureaucratic modifications that he thinks may give him and others extra time. He’s additionally intensely annoyed with the US Meals and Drug Administration and the ALS Affiliation, the $100m beneficiary of the Ice Bucket problem, for what Harrell says is their gradual tempo of motion on the disease.

“If the FDA doesn’t change, I’ll doubtless die or turn into absolutely paralysed,” he says, pointing to the marketing campaign began by the former Obama staffer Brian Wallach, I AM ALS, as one other instance of the want for change. “Teams [like the ALS Association] usually are not efficient, usually are not rising, and must both change and evolve or get out of the manner.”

There are presently solely two therapies for ALS permitted by the FDA: riluzole, which made Harrell really feel sicker, and solely extends life by two to 4 months, and Radicava (edaravone), which isn’t permitted to be used in Europe. At present, he makes use of neither, and thinks there are extra promising choices in growth. He desires the FDA to alter drug trial guidelines to account for the way rapidly the disease progresses, in addition to the variety of ALS. Many sufferers turn into so sick that they’re unable to participate in trials, making it arduous for research to succeed in FDA mandates on trial pattern dimension.

“This era of individuals with ALS usually are not going to be content material elevating cash for the ice bucket problem whereas they’re dying ready for entry to medicine that work now,” he says. “If we knew extra about ALS, then we may goal therapies to the subtypes. Mockingly, one in every of the greatest methods to study these subtypes could be to approve medicine that work for some and then research why they work for some however not others with ALS. That will even be the humane factor to do.”


One day too quickly, it’s doubtless ALS will pressure Harrell to cease his campaigning. At the begin of our interviews in spring this yr, Harrell may solely communicate in a staccato model of our first dialog in 2019, when his limp was beginning to develop. Now, he’s about to begin studying to make use of Eyegaze – eye-tracking software program – that may assist him communicate although a pc at a most of 20 phrases a minute. A side-effect of ALS often called PBA – pseudobulbar have an effect on – signifies that Harrell typically loses management when he laughs or cries, scary his daughter throughout quiet hugs and tender moments when the disappointment breaks by way of. As she has gotten older, she has been higher capable of perceive his situation and desires to assist take care of him.

“A toddler is admittedly good at retaining you in the second, however we could also be having a second collectively and I feel: ‘What number of extra of those may I’ve?’ I begin to tear up and that’s complicated for her,” he says. “No child ought to must take care of that. I really feel a deep disappointment that, though that is unavoidable, it should definitely traumatise her. At the similar time, [she is] an incredible inspiration to dwell and dwell properly.”

Show More

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button