Amazon Employees for Climate Justice vow to persist despite defeat of their resolution and snub by Jeff Bezos

In the end, approximately 7,700 Amazon employees publicly signed their names to an employee-shareholder resolution calling for stronger climate change action by the company, as well as worker protection in situations related to extreme weather disasters. The entire Board opposed the resolution (and all other shareholder resolutions presented at the meeting), despite the strong employee support and the endorsement by two of the largest proxy advisory firms in the U.S., which cited the financial and reputational risks from being heavily dependent on cheap fossil fuels.  “Amazon and CEO Jeff Bezos challenged on climate change. Here’s how shareholders voted on it and other issues” in the Seattle Times  is full, business-like news account of the meeting, including that Amazon intends to release its carbon footprint later in 2019, and that it intends to meet the net zero carbon emissions goals of  the Shipment Zero initiative largely through direct emission cuts, not through buying carbon offsets. However, according to “Jeff Bezos Wouldn’t Even Come On Stage to Listen to His Employees Who Want Amazon to Address Climate Change” in Gizmodo, Bezos and other executives dodged most climate-related questions in the Q&A at the end of the meeting.

Amazon employees 2The group leading the climate resolution, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, issued their own press release about the meeting, which states: “Because the Board still does not understand the severity of the climate crisis, we will file this resolution again next year. And we will announce other actions in the coming months. We – Amazon’s employees – have the talent and experience to remake entire industries with incredible speed. This is work we want to do.”  Follow further developments at the Amazon Employees for Climate Justice Twitter feed .

Tellingly, Jeff Bezos declined the direct invitation of one of the leaders to join her on stage as she introduced the resolution,  a fact which has been widely reported, not only by Gizmodo , but also in “World’s Richest Man Jeff Bezos Hides Backstage as Amazon Workers Demand ‘Bold, Rapid’ Climate Action” in Common Dreams and even in “Jeff Bezos blew off Amazon employees’ proposal at the shareholder’s meeting and they were miffed: ‘This is not the kind of leadership we need‘” in Business Insider.  

Other, briefer reports of the meeting appeared in The Guardian ,  Los Angeles Times   and in Vox .

FTQ shareholder resolution calls for GHG targets aligned with the Paris Agreement; corporations respond with a charge of “micromanagement”

As part of its stated Action Plan for Engaging in a Just Energy Transition , the Fonds de Solidarité des Travailleurs du Québec  (FTQ) (an investment fund controlled by Quebec trade unions) put forward the following shareholder’s resolution  at the Cenovus Energy Annual Meeting in Calgary in April.  (The text of the resolution appears on page 51, as Appendix A in the company’s Information Circular):

Resolved: That Cenovus Energy Inc. (“Cenovus”) set and publish science-based greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets that are aligned with the goal of the Paris Agreement to limit global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels. These targets should cover the direct and indirect methane and other GHG emissions of Cenovus’ operations over medium and long-term time horizons. Such targets should be quantitative, subject to regular review, and progress against such targets should be reported to shareholders on an annual basis.

The Board’s written response and recommendation  states “…..Cenovus has always and will continue to assess our approach to climate change risk management with a view to maximizing shareholder value. ….Achieving the level of commitment contemplated by the Paris Agreement requires an integrated plan at a national and global level, with policies to guide the actions of governments, individuals and corporations to collectively work together toward the desired outcome. Our view is that it is an overly demanding request, and contrary to the best interests of shareholder value, to require an individual company to unilaterally set targets….   As such, we recommend voting against the proposal.”  And sure enough, as expected, the FTQ proposal was defeated by an  89% vote against. The news is summarized  and in The Energy Mix  and  by the CBC  .

The  Fonds de Solidarité des Travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), along with the Canadian shareholders’ non-profit  SHARE, was also part of the recent resolution to Exxon . That resolution, filed in the U.S.  by a group of investors led by the New York State Common Retirement Fund and the Church Commissioners for England, proposed that the company develop “short-, medium- and long-term greenhouse gas targets aligned with the goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.”  In response,  ExxonMobil   applied for and received permission from the  U.S. Securities Exchange Commission (SEC), allowing it to exclude the resolution from its Proxy Circular.  In retaliation, SHARE states in a blog, Why we’ll vote against Exxon’s entire board of directors, that it is “recommending to our proxy voting clients that they withhold their support for all Exxon directors at the upcoming annual general meeting on May 29th.”

The “Micromanaging” argument:  “Investors Worried About Climate Change Run Into New SEC Roadblocks” from Inside Climate News (May 3), in addition to providing a good overview of shareholder actions, explains: “The term “micromanage” has become the linchpin to objections by companies seeking to block these resolutions. The precedent was set last year when the SEC agreed with EOG Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas exploration company, that a resolution asking the company to adopt emissions goals had sought to “micromanage” the company.”  More in  “Exxon Shareholders want action on climate change: SEC calls it micromanagement”  in the Washington Post (May 8). According to the CBC report about the FTQ resolution at  Cenovus, the corporate CEO called the proposal “overly demanding”, and said  “we had challenges with the prescriptive nature of the proposal”,  echoing the industry’s language and strategy.

To stay up to date: The U.S. non-profit As you Sow  monitors corporate environmental and social responsibility, including climate change and the energy transition  – through  press releases  , reports, and an up-to-date database of resolutions .

Amazon employees use their power as shareholders to request corporate policies on climate change

Amazon employees logoIn  what a New York Times article characterizes as “ the largest employee-driven movement on climate change to take place in the influential tech industry”, almost 7,000 employees of tech giant Amazon have now signed their names to an Open Letter to Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors, released on April 10.  The Letter states: “we ask that you adopt the climate plan shareholder resolution and release a company-wide climate plan that incorporates the principles outlined in this letter.” It then outlines a thorough list of desired actions, including:  a complete transition away from fossil fuels rather than relying on carbon offsets; prioritization of climate impact when making business decisions; prioritizing the most vulnerable communities in pollution reduction initiatives related to Amazon locations; and “fair treatment of all employees during climate disruptions and extreme weather events. Unsafe or inaccessible workplaces should not be a reason to withhold pay, terminate, or otherwise penalize employees — including hourly and contract workers.”  Amazon Employees for Climate Justice provides updates at their Twitter account here.

According to an article in Gizmodo : “Employees from seemingly every background and department have signed on, from UX designers to biz dev managers to systems development engineers and beyond. A number of senior employees are on board, too—in addition to the VP, at the time of writing, I counted at least eight directors on the list. It’s part of a growing trend towards worker advocacy in the tech industry, coming on the heels of the Google Walkout for Change and the We Won’t Build It effort, also at Amazon.”  The culture of empowerment behind the Open Letter is evident in an  interview published in Gizmodo, “One of the Amazon Workers Behind the Push to Get Jeff Bezos to Address Climate Change Speaks Out”  .  Wired also describes the culture of shareholder activism in “Amazon Employees Try A New Form Of Activism, As Shareholders” .

Amazon has more than 65,000 corporate and tech employees in the United States, who are awarded shares as part of their compensation program.  In late November and early December, 2018, 16 current and former Amazon employees exercised their rights as shareholders by tabling  a shareholder resolution – which has been seen as the trigger for Amazon’s  Shipment Zero initiative,  a vision to make all Amazon shipments net-zero carbon, with 50 percent of all shipments net zero by 2030. Amazon’s response to the latest Open Letter is partly reproduced in the Gizmodo article, and states:  “We have a long history of commitment to sustainability through innovative programs such as Frustration Free PackagingShip in Own Container, our network of solar and wind farms, solar on our fulfillment center rooftopsinvestments in the circular economy with the Closed Loop Fund, and numerous other initiatives happening every day by teams across Amazon. In operations alone, we have over 200 scientists, engineers, and product designers dedicated exclusively to inventing new ways to leverage our scale for the good of customers and the planet. We have a long term commitment to powering our global infrastructure using 100% renewable energy.” Amazon’s corporate website details all its sustainability efforts   – and  on April 8th, just before the Open Letter was published, a press release announced 3 new wind energy projects, to augment the current level of 50% renewable energy power for the Automated Web Services part of the business.

Public sector pension administrators are recognizing climate risk, protecting pensions of public employees in Ontario and New York City

OPTrust administers the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU ) Pension Plan, with almost 87,000 members and retirees.  On January 31, it became a leader in Canadian pension plan administration by releasing two documents:   Climate Change: Delivering on Disclosure, a position paper, and OPTrust: Portfolio Climate Risk Assessment, a report by Mercer consultants, which provides an assessment and analysis of the fund’s climate risk exposure .  The  OPTrust  press release  states: “For pension funds, climate change presents a number of complex and long-term risks. In Canada alone, pension funds manage well over $1.5 trillion in assets, which brings a real responsibility to collectively seek innovative approaches to modeling carbon exposure and its impact across portfolios.”   The position paper, Delivering on Disclosure, includes a call for collaboration amongst other financial actors to develop standardized measures for carbon disclosure.  It is noteworthy that OPTrust is governed by a 10-member Board of Trustees, five of whom are appointed by the union,  OPSEU,  and five by the employer, the Government of Ontario.

In a February 2 press release  affecting  the pension plans of New York’s public employees, teachers, firefighters and police,  the Office of the Controller of New York City announced:  “the Trustees of the New York City Pension Funds … will conduct the first-ever carbon footprint analysis of their portfolios and determine how to best manage their investments with an eye toward climate change. In the 21st century, companies must transition to a low-carbon economy, and a failure to adapt to the realities of global warming could present potential investment risks.”  The  New York City pension system  has been a leader in addressing climate change risks, including an initiative called the Boardroom Accountability Project  , which began in 2014 to give investors the ability to ensure boards are diverse and “climate-competent”.

On this point, a January 2017 report from Vancouver-based Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE) found that   “… companies in Canada’s most carbon-intensive sectors are not demonstrating ‘climate competency’ in the boardroom.”   The report, Taking Climate on Board: Are Canadian energy and utilities company boards equipped to address climate change? urges greater transparency from boards at publicly-traded corporations, stating “Investors need boards to demonstrate that they are “climate-competent” – that they understand and prioritize climate change risks to long-term value, including the physical, legal, reputational, stranded asset and regulatory risks related to climate change.”   The report is based on a  review of the public disclosures from 52 companies across Canada’s energy and utilities sectors,  using 3 measures: board skills and experience, oversight, and risk disclosure. It concludes that “more companies are starting to talk about climate change in their reporting, but only three boards disclosed any expertise amongst their members on the issue, and no board included climate change knowledge in its board competency matrix.” The full report is here.  (On another note, SHARE has walked the walk by filing shareholder resolutions with Enbridge Inc., and met with TD Bank regarding their environmental and social aspects of their investments  in  the Dakota Access Pipeline. See “The Dakota Access Pipeline and Indigenous Rights.” )

Divestment Still a Necessary Strategy as ExxonMobil Reports on Stranded Assets

The largest oil and gas company in the world, ExxonMobil, agreed under pressure from activist shareholders to publish a “Carbon Asset Risk” report on their website, to provide information to shareholders on the risks that stranded assets pose to the company’s business model, and how the company is planning for a low-carbon world. Stranded assets for Exxon are the carbon reserves which would need to remain in the ground if the world were to follow a carbon budget to keep below 2 degrees of global warming.

Some environmentalists are claiming this transparency as a victory – GreenBiz described it as “a pivotal milestone on the road to a low-carbon economy”. Bill McKibben, noting that the Exxon report was released on the same day as the IPCC Report, said it is “probably at least as important in the ongoing battle over the future of the atmosphere”. But McKibben sees “consummate arrogance” in Exxon’s statement that “we are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become stranded”. For McKibben, the solution remains a divestment campaign – a strategy that Archbishop Desmond Tutu also urged in an April essay in The Guardian.

See “Exxon, Stranded Assets and the New Math” at GreenBiz: http://www.greenbiz.com/blog/2014/03/24/exxon-stranded-assets-and-new-math, and an article in the Wall Street Journal Market Watch at: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/landmark-agreement-with-shareholders-exxonmobil-agrees-to-report-on-climate-change-carbon-asset-risk-2014-03-20. But see also Bill McKibben’s article in The Guardian on April 3rd, “Exxon Mobil’s Response to Climate Change is Consummate Arrogance” at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/03/exxon-mobil-climate-change-oil-gas-fossil-fuels?CMP=twt_fd&utm_content=bufferfc5c8&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer, and Desmond Tutu, “We Need an Apartheid-style Boycott to Save the Planet” at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/10/divest-fossil-fuels-climate-change-keystone-xl.

For an overview of Stranded Assets, see Unburnable Carbon: Wasted Capital and Stranded Assets at:
http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publications/Policy/docs/PB-unburnable-carbon-2013-wasted-capital-stranded-assets.pdf.