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Momentum for corporate climate action has surged in the wake of sweeping cutbacks in federal climate commitments. Within a month of the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, shareholders in the nation’s largest energy corporations won several historic victories on behalf of the global climate movement.

Shareholders at Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest oil and gas company, voted 62% in favor of an annual report on compliance with international guidelines on carbon emissions. Other successful resolutions include Occidental Petroleum Corp., tallying 67.3%, and Pennsylvania utility company PPL with 58%.

The proposal calls on a corporation to assess financial risks under the COP21 “2-Degree Scenario,” an international effort to slash fossil fuel consumption and limit global temperature increase to under 2-degrees Celsius. Though technically nonbinding, these resolutions send a strong signal to companies that their shareholders are holding them accountable. As You Sow president Danielle Fugere points out, commitments to carbon risk assessment are quickly becoming a “financial fundamental” for the world’s energy producers.

Management and corporate lobbyists who typically oppose such measures have historically swayed shareholders to vote them down. Other than the notable examples of Exxon Mobil, PPL and Occidental, most resolutions failed to reach a majority in 2017. Technically another losing season for climate disclosure—but the overall percentages showed record shareholder support, with some double-digit jumps in the past year. On the whole, support for corporate carbon disclosures is on a rapid rise.

Here’s a rollup of the most encouraging “losses” for the 2-degree scenario during the 2017 voting season, courtesy of the CERES shareholder resolution database:

Ameren: Voted 47.5% in 2017 , up 36.3% from a 2016 vote on the same measure.

DTE: Voted 45% in 2017, up 18.5% from a similar resolution in 2016.

Southern Company: Voted 45.7% in 2017, up 16% from their 2016 vote.

KMI: Voted 38.20% in 2017, up 11.1% from a similar resolution in 2016.

First Energy Corp: Voted 43.4% in 2017, up 11.5% from last year.

And the winners:

Exxon Mobil: Passed in 2017 with 62.00% (up 24% from 2016).

Occidental: Passed with 67.30% (up 18.30% from 2016)

PPL: Passed with 58.6% of the vote.

Honorable mentions with a narrow margin but no previous filings:

PNM: 49.90%
Duke: 46.40%
Dominion: 47.80%

Increasing public awareness of climate change, support from institutional investors like Blackrock and State Street, and the rapid decline in climate skepticism all contribute to successful disclosure efforts. However, the longstanding shareholder resolution process has come under congressional fire with the recent passage of the Financial CHOICE act. As Holly Testa from SRI investment firm First Affirmative Network writes, the fundamental mechanism for shareholders and shareowners to influence corporations—as well as the renewed momentum for corporate climate action—may be in jeopardy.

Update: Following feedback from some of our readers, we’d like to make a clarification on our characterization of shareholder proposal votes. While our intent was to identify a growing trend in majority shareholder support for climate action, we should emphasize that even minority votes can generate a response—just as majority votes do not oblige management to act. We invited Bill Baue, co-founder and Senior Director of the Reporting 3.0 Platform, to explain further:

Voting on shareholder resolutions defies traditional win/loss calculus, as the proposals are ‘advisory’ so companies can ignore ‘majority votes.’ But the opposite dynamic is actually much more common (and important)! Votes entering the 20-30% range start to get board and management attention, often triggering adoption of the proposal. And, of course, this doesn’t even take into account resolutions that investors withdraw before going to vote due to company cooperation. All of this speaks to the “canary in the coal mine” aspect of shareholder resolutions as risk and opportunity flagging mechanisms.

As an internationally recognized expert on ThriveAbility, Sustainability Context, and Online Stakeholder Engagement, Bill Baue designs systemic transformation at global, company, and community levels. A serial entrepreneur, he’s co-founded a number of
companies and initiatives, including Convetit, an online collaborative innovation platform; the Sustainability Context Group, a global community of thought leaders and practitioners who advocate for Context-Based Sustainability; the ThriveAbility Foundation, which is designing a multicapital operating system for a regenerative, inclusive global economy; and Sea Change Radio, a globally syndicated podcast on sustainability.

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