Climate Deception on Agenda at Fossil Fuel Company Annual Meetings

March 10, 2016 | 2:23 pm
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program
Crocuses at the National Arboretum

Crocuses at the National Arboretum

Spring is on the horizon, bringing crocuses, daffodils, cherry blossoms, birdsong. . . and corporate annual shareholders’ meetings. This week marks the release of a vital resource for shareholders seeking to make their voices heard on issues like climate change and political spending during the annual meeting season.

Proxy Preview 2016—the insider’s guide to social and environmental shareholder proposals—is now available for download. The report includes an overview, in-depth analysis, and company-by-company index of more than 370 resolutions filed this year by responsible investors.

I was one of 30+ guest authors invited to provide expert analysis and insight for this year’s edition of Proxy Preview—an unparalleled opportunity to reach investors with evidence of the fossil fuel companies’ decades-long deception and disinformation campaign.

Proxy Preview is a collaboration between As You Sow, Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2), and Proxy Impact.

Proxy Preview is a collaboration between As You Sow, Sustainable Investments Institute (Si2), and Proxy Impact.

Shareholder resolutions 101

In my previous campaign work, I’ve spent many a spring day inside annual shareholders’ meetings. They are the one chance all year to bring corporate CEOs, board members, and top management face to face with the impact of their decisions. I’ve stood with Wayne Baker, who lost his larynx to tobacco, as he spoke his truth to shareholders and decision-makers of the former RJR Nabisco, and with Les Ann Kirkland as she told the audience at a Dow Chemical annual meeting about her life and her community in “Cancer Alley” near a company facility in Louisiana.

Since I started with UCS last fall, I’ve been in touch with socially responsible investors who work on climate change. Shareholders have a special opportunity—and responsibility—to engage with corporations over their environmental and social policies. Through the proxy process, concerned shareholders in a company can propose resolutions for consideration by all of the company’s shareholders. If these resolutions qualify according to rules set by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company must put them on the agenda for a vote at its annual meeting.

With activists at Dow Chemical annual shareholders' meeting, 1996. I'm second from left and Les Ann is second from right.

Dow Chemical annual shareholders’ meeting, 1996. I’m second from left and Les Ann is second from right.

I’ll write more about shareholder resolutions and annual meetings of the fossil fuel producers throughout the spring. For now, here’s the full text of my Proxy Preview article.

Fossil Fuel Companies’ Climate Deception Draws Scrutiny

This proxy season, fossil fuel producers are facing growing scrutiny about the discrepancy between their internal knowledge of climate science and their public denial of climate change. Last July, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released The Climate Deception Dossiers, a report documenting how, over the past three decades, many of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies have intentionally spread disinformation about climate science. The fossil fuel industry’s campaigns to sow confusion and block action to address global warming are highlighted in seven “deception dossiers”—collections of internal company and trade association documents that have either been leaked to the public, come to light through lawsuits, or been disclosed through Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.

Each collection provides an illuminating inside look at this coordinated campaign of deception, an effort underwritten by ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, Peabody Energy, and other fossil fuel companies. UCS also found that Exxon had been factoring the reality of fossil fuel-driven climate change into its internal oil and gas extraction plans as early as 1981—much earlier than anyone had realized and years before there was much public awareness of the problem.

A few months after the report’s release, two news organizations published a series of articles that filled in more detail about what Exxon scientists knew about the threat posed by climate change and when they knew it. Both InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times uncovered evidence from company archives and interviews with former employees showing that Exxon was a leader in climate research in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming one of the most ardent climate science deniers, and that the company rejected warnings from its own scientists that the consequences of global warming could be catastrophic.

In light of these revelations, several members of Congress, three presidential candidates, more than 60 leading environmental, science, and social justice groups, and nearly 400,000 individuals have called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate ExxonMobil for deliberately deceiving the public, much in the same way the tobacco industry lied about the link between smoking and disease.

New York’s Attorney General has begun an inquiry, and California’s Attorney General is reportedly also investigating whether ExxonMobil lied to shareholders and the public about the risks of climate change and whether any state laws have been violated. NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told PBS NewsHour, “we have laws against defrauding the public, defrauding consumers, defrauding shareholders.” Meanwhile 45 members of Congress sent leading fossil fuel company CEOs a letter citing The Climate Deception Dossiers that asked whether the companies intentionally spread disinformation about climate science.

These developments and the landmark Paris climate agreement set the context for heightened investor engagement with oil, gas and coal companies about their response to climate change. This proxy season, shareholders are calling on companies such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips to disclose how they are positioning their companies in a carbon-constrained world and to address issues relating to their public policy advocacy on climate and energy.

With growing support from UCS activists and experts, this spring brings renewed hope that the fossil fuel producers will be held accountable for their answers to these questions.