Climate activists arrested at Vanguard headquarters in Chester County

Climate activists want the suburban Philadelphia-based asset manager to stop investing in fossil fuel. Vanguard says it's carefully managing climate risks for customers.

Tredyffrin Township police arrest protesters at the Matthews Road entrance to Vanguard offices. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tredyffrin Township police arrest protesters at the Matthews Road entrance to Vanguard offices. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This story is part of the WHYY News Climate Desk, bringing you news and solutions for our changing region.

From the Poconos to the Jersey Shore to the mouth of the Delaware Bay, what do you want to know about climate change? What would you like us to cover? Get in touch.

Police arrested 16 climate activists at Vanguard’s suburban Philadelphia headquarters in Chester County Wednesday morning after protesters blocked several entrances during rush hour.

It’s the latest escalation of the Earth Quaker Action Team after two years of attempts to get a sit-down meeting with Vanguard executives to discuss the asset manager’s fossil fuel investments. Several protesters were arrested last September, but the group says Vanguard’s climate actions have gotten worse, not better.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“I’ve got six great-grandchildren, who are facing a world of adulthood that is just full of disasters, ecological disasters, because of the work that Vanguard is doing, the choices Vanguard is making,” George Lakey said.

The 85-year-old Quaker activist sat in a chair helping to block a main entrance while holding a banner that read, “Vanguard invests in climate destruction.”

“It says it’s concerned with the future, and most people who invest in Vanguard, are hoping their future will be secure. While Vanguard is investing in insecurity,” he said.

Although he blocked the site, Lakey was not among those arrested.

Vanguard is the world’s second-largest asset manager. It manages about $7 to $8 trillion dollars for 30 million individual investors and has one of the largest investments in coal.

The protests are part of the global Vanguard S.O.S. campaign, which urges Vanguard to use its economic might to force companies to address the climate crisis.

“The power that they hold among so many companies in terms of being one of the largest shareholders, and in some cases the largest shareholder, cannot be ignored,” Monty Ogden, a teacher, said. “They are standing in the way of meaningful climate action worldwide.”

Ogden says Vanguard has about $300 billion invested in fossil fuels.

The company declined an interview but said it is committed to limiting climate investment risks for its customers.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

In December, Vanguard angered climate activists for pulling out of an international initiative aimed at cutting carbon emissions.

The company said it made the decision to withdraw from the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative to preserve independence and prevent confusion. But climate activists argue the company bowed to right-wing pressure.

“A lot of the asset managers are getting attacked from both sides right now,” said Witold Henisz, vice dean of the ESG Initiative at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“You have people on the right claiming that Vanguard is representing woke ideological green interests. And then you have people on the left like the people behind the Vanguard S.O.S. campaign or others saying that they’re not doing enough and they’re destroying the planet.”

Henisz said on the one hand, there’s a risk that companies like Vanguard are underestimating the price of climate risk, but to do so accurately would make its investments more secure in the future.

But he also says there is little evidence that coordinated divestment strategies work.
“And I think it’s easy to see why,” said Henisz. “If you think about what would happen if Vanguard sold all of its coal stocks or all of its oil stocks, someone’s going to buy them. And the person who’s going to buy them might not care as much about the climate transition as Vanguard. Imagine if the Saudis or the Russians bought them or the Koch brothers bought them. Would that make the planet better off?”

Earlier this month, Vanguard released its annual stewardship report, which encourages companies to disclose their carbon emissions.

The Earth Quaker Action Team says it needs to go further and support shareholder resolutions that demand decarbonization.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal