History was made at ExxonMobil’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday when investors essentially staged a coup, voting to oust at least two members of the board due to the company’s poor performance on climate change. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!
Those members will be replaced by climate activists backed by investor Engine 1, which was calling for four new independent candidates with more robust climate change and sustainability bona fides to sit on Exxon’s 12-member board. Engine 1 is a relatively small fund, but surprisingly—or perhaps not so surprisingly, given how investors seem to be waking up to the fact that oil companies are driving our planet over a menacing-looking cliff—the bigger boys in the room decided to play along. Financial giant BlackRock, which has a substantial share in Exxon and incentives to look good on climate change, said yesterday that it had decided to back three of the four Engine 1 board candidates, while a leading advisory firm for financial services also recommended voting for Engine 1’s nominees earlier this week.
Exxon was so panicked by seeing the writing on the wall that they paused voting Wednesday in what many critics say was an attempt to stall the inevitable. The company was still counting votes as of press time, but at least two of the four candidates had been voted in. Too bad, guys!
Having some different people sitting on its board who think a little bit more about climate change than the previous bozos isn’t exactly a monumental revolution. But the vote sends a very clear signal to Exxon that their investors aren’t too happy with the current state of affairs, and that they care much more about climate change than they have in the past. And Exxon, which has one of the worst track records on climate change of any major oil company, is going to have to change course or face an even bigger uprising.
“Corporations are the most powerful entities on the planet,” said Andrew Behar, the CEO of As You Sow and a member of the Coalition United for a Responsible Exxon. “They’re run by executives who get their marching orders and incentives from the board. Executives run the company, but the board reports to the shareholders, and shareholders are the boss. Today, shareholders showed that when a company doesn’t listen to them, when they continue to destroy our planet and continue to lose money doing it, they’re going to need a new board of directors.”
Before this, Exxon was working diligently to convince all of us that it was a good corporate citizen when it comes to climate change after spending decades of spreading misinformation and continued attempts to blame individuals for the problem. In an attempt to appease its investors ahead of the vote, Exxon has promised to add other more climate-friendly directors to the board. During today’s meeting, Exxon’s president, Darren Woods, echoed statements he’s made in the past that the company “[supplies] the products that support almost every aspect of global life” and wishes to “contribute meaningfully” to the goal of a low carbon future. We’ll see if this type of bullshit holds water with the new board members.
The winds of change ain’t just coming for Exxon. Earlier this month, Shell barely held off a rebellion within its own ranks at its own shareholder meeting after 30% of its investors voted for a more ambitious climate plan than the company was putting forward. On Wednesday, Shell faced the music, as a Dutch court said the company needed to cut its carbon pollution 45% by 2030. Also on Wednesday, more than 60% of Chevron shareholders voted to force it to account for the emissions caused by burning the oil it sells, going against the recommendation of the company’s leadership. The Shell decision includes those emissions as well, which are known as Scope 3 and account for the lion’s share of carbon pollution tied to oil.
Trusting capitalism to solve our climate crisis is, of course, a fruitless exercise. But I’ll take any sign of hope that corporate America may be waking up to reality–and hitting oil companies where they’re going to hurt most.
“This is not the end, this is the beginning,” said Behar. “Every board of directors is on notice now. If they don’t do their job of proper oversight, they will be replaced.”