Reprinted from The Guardian
In 1990, a small group of investors offered a resolution at Exxon's annual shareholder's meeting asking that it "develop a company-wide plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions." The company opposed the motion, which won 6% of the vote, on the grounds that "the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear."
In 1997, Father Michael Crosby, a Catholic shareholder activist from Milwaukee, offered a less taxing resolution: perhaps Exxon could merely report on the impact that climate change would have on the company's business? Exxon refused, arguing that there was "great uncertainty" about climate change. The resolution eventually took 4.5% of the vote.
In 2015, shareholder activists put forward a variety of resolutions, the most important of which would have set goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Again Exxon opposed them, its CEO informing shareholders that if climate change caused any "inclement weather" humans would "adapt."
Here's what's happened since that meeting: we've had 12 straight months of record-busting temperatures; this February and March were the hottest months ever recorded on our earth. We've seen the highest wind speeds ever recorded in the western and southern hemispheres. We've watched the rapid death of vast swaths of coral, as hot oceans triggered by far the largest "bleaching" event ever recorded.
Oh, and we learned, from Pulitzer-prize winning journalists, that Exxon knew about climate change in 1981 but continued to fund climate deniers for 27 more years. That while they were telling shareholders that there was too much uncertainty to take action against climate change, they were raising the decks of their facilities and rigs to withstand the sea level rise they knew was coming. That they were funding the architecture of denial that kept a phony debate alive for a quarter century.
With that as the backdrop, we approach the next Exxon annual meeting at the end of the month. Once again environmentalists are presenting the same resolutions, in a kind of rite of spring that's likely to have the usual outcome.
Some are doing it sincerely -- religious activists, many of them, who have shown how shareholder activism can work wonders in other industries. But against the Exxons of the world they've gotten precisely nowhere.
And others -- the comptroller of the state of New York, for instance -- are going through this charade because they've been pressured to divest their shares: to join everyone from the University of Hawaii to the city of Copenhagen to the Rockefeller family in a huge campaign that's helped change the dynamic around energy investing. Instead of saying yes and joining in, these officials are trying to greenwash their way out of real action.
After an 116-day student sit-in for divestment, MIT officials (likely mindful that David Koch is a life trustee) opted instead for shareholder "engagement." Vermont treasurer Beth Pearce, for instance, has watched the state's legislature ask her to divest. Instead, she's offering another resolution at the annual meeting, like the one she asked for last year. It lost by more than 90%. "We're hoping for a better result this time," she said.
"Waste of time" is how New York divestment activist Mark Dunlea characterizes it. And he's right since time is the thing in short supply. Since this kabuki dance started in 1990, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have gone from about 350 parts per million to more than 400. Since this charade began the planet has exited the Holocene, that 10,000 year stretch of benign climatic stability that underwrote the rise of civilizations.
And he's right. There's a certain point at which noble failure turns into moral cover -- by continuing this process past the point where any reasonable person can see it's a failure, shareholder "activists" actually help the company they're targeting.
Even if somehow one of the handfuls of climate-related resolutions were to win a majority of the shareholders' votes, the resolutions are non-binding; those with the most support merely request annual reports. What more information do shareholders need? Exxon has spent millions on climate policy obstruction, and -- scientist's pleas to the contrary -- plans to burn all of its reserves and keep hunting for more.
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