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When investors speak, corporations listen

On receiving a letter from his electric utility company, author E.B. White lost no time responding to the company’s vice-president, who had originated the letter.

It requested that White leave a window open, as his refrigerator might be discharging poisonous gas.

White’s reply, published in his Letters, identified him as a stockholder wishing “to be enlightened” as to the kind, quantity and manner of discharge of the gas.

It called a fantastic affront “your recommendation (to get) plenty of fresh air – enough to counteract the effect of the gas.”

Affirming that, if the machine discharges poison into people’s homes he won’t want to own one, White states that “I shall certainly sell my stock.”

Through fossil fuels since the industrial revolution, humans have been discharging greenhouse gases into the atmosphere of our common, planetary home.

The scientists who first demonstrated their heat-trapping nature thought the gases a potentially beneficial force.

Through increasing their percentage in the atmosphere, Svante Arrhenius hypothesized, “we may hope to enjoy more equable and better climates … and the earth bringing forth more abundant crops for the benefit of … mankind.”

Arrhenius anticipated the gases’ buildup in the air to be such a slow process, however, that it would take 3,000 years to double their atmospheric levels.

He could not know that, barely 150 years later, tens of billions of tons would be added to the air every year or that, since 1958 when systematic measurement began, their concentration has risen by almost a third, in less than six decades.

As Elizabeth Kolbert attested in Field Notes, if emissions continue at the current rate, the greenhouse gas concentration would double “roughly two thousand eight hundred and fifty years ahead of Arrhenius’s prediction.”

By1981, Exxon Mobil knew about the greenhouse effect caused by its products and was taking climate change into account in its own planning decisions.

Yet, with other major players in the fossil fuel industry, it chose to conceal the dangers of its products, engaging in a decades-long disinformation campaign about the science of climate change and working systematically to block laws or regulations that would reduce the heat-trapping emissions.

However, when shareholders speak out, as E.B. White did in his letter, companies may well listen, including Exxon.

“Great news from the latest ExxonMobil shareholders meeting in Dallas,” the Union of Concerned Scientists reported on May 31 this year. By an unprecedented, 62.3 percent majority vote, the investors voted for a resolution urging the company no longer to conceal the truth but to disclose the dangers and risk to their bottom line from climate change.

As a predictable, simple and fair method to bring emissions down quickly, a revenue neutral carbon tax has lately found allies in the fossil fuel industry, ExxonMobil included, as the New York Times noted in April in “Guess who’s for a carbon tax now.”

It is the method also promoted by the Climate Leadership Council of prominent Republican elders and businessmen, and of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby organization.