Shareholder resolutions related to climate change more than doubled over the past five years, according to statistics gathered by a coalition of public interest groups, environmental organizations and pension funds. Moreover, the coalition, Boston-based Ceres, says support for those measures averaged more than 23 percent in 2008, a new high.
While that's not enough to pass a resolution, Ceres contends rising vote totals compel companies to act, like a plan by Ford Motor Co. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2020.
"It's easy to ignore 3 or 5 percent votes, but it's pretty hard to ignore 22 percent votes or 39 percent votes," said Dan Bakal, director of electric power programs for Ceres.
Bakal said shareholder activism led to new reports from Allegheny Energy and other large electricity producers that outline strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The companies faced climate change resolutions this year. The proposals were withdrawn after companies agreed to issue the reports, Bakal said.
"It's an indication of movement," he said.
It was similar to what happened after shareholders voted against a climate change resolution last year, Allegheny spokesman Allen Staggers said.
"That proposal was rejected by stockholders. However, the company elected to prepare a report simply because it had been a timely issue," he said. "The chairman thought it was the right thing to do at the time."
Deciding to issue a report or take some other action, often with the side benefit of lowering costs or increasing efficiency, is an understandable reaction by companies, said Karen Schnatterly, an assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri.
"They look good," she said.
Ceres says 57 climate-related shareholder resolutions were filed with U.S. companies in 2008, up from 43 in 2007 and 31 in 2006.
Support likewise has climbed from an average of 17.8 percent in 2006 and 21.6 percent last year. This year, support averaged 23.5 percent, according to Ceres.
Fewer than half the resolutions end up before shareholders. Ceres says 26 went to a vote in 2008, and 25 were withdrawn after companies agreed to address the issue. Five others were withdrawn by proponents due to technicalities or left out of proxy statements by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Despite Ceres' claims of success, so far none of the proposals has come close to passing. The best showing the group can cite is a resolution rejected by the owners of better than 60 percent of Pittsburgh-based coal mine operator Consol Energy shares.
Thus far, Bakal said he knows of no action by Consol despite the relatively high level of shareholder support.
Consol, which links the vote total to support by an institutional investor advisory service, sees little value in a report, spokesman Tom Hoffman said.
"We produce coal and natural gas," Hoffman said. "It just doesn't seem to us that there is a whole lot of value to shareholders to do a study to tell them what they already know."
Charles Elson, corporate governance chair at the University of Delaware, says the lack of victories shows social issues simply haven't attracted mainstream investors, despite support from some large pension funds.
"I don't think it's caught on yet," Elson said.