State Pensions Cast Critical Votes in the Most Important Climate Elections You’ve Never Heard Of

In the fight for a livable planet, everyone knows we need to elect strong climate champions. But did you know that each spring there are elections that have a huge impact on the climate and our future? We’re talking about the voting that happens every year at the annual shareholder meetings of US corporations — like banks, insurance companies, major tech firms, automakers, polluting fossil fuel companies, and other companies with massive climate footprints. 

Every year, these companies run elections to decide who should be on their boards of directors and hold votes on shareholder proposals that are critical for the fight against the climate crisis. The outcomes of these elections are instrumental in determining how these companies will act — whether fossil fuel companies will build projects, whether banks will bankroll fossil fuel expansion or fund climate solutions, and whether companies will take responsibility toward Indigenous and frontline communities. These votes have an significant impact in determining whether or not we will rein in catastrophic climate change, end environmental racism, and more. 

In other words, these are the most important climate elections you’ve (likely) never heard of. 

Unlike a lot of elections, this isn’t a system of “1 person, 1 vote.” Instead, the biggest investors in these companies get a larger say. These investors have an outsized influence in determining the future leaders of a company, who manages a company’s climate plan, and which climate policies the company implements. In short, these investors are largely responsible for deciding the outcome of these critical climate votes that affect our future. 

iStock / Nuthawut Somsuk

What do pensions have to do with this?

There are a number of big investors that play an important role at shareholder meetings. Some of them are asset managers like BlackRock and Vanguard, which are private-sector investment firms that manage peoples’ savings. Other investors like public pensions, state treasurers, and comptrollers represent local communities and the interests of government employees and their families. 

We need all of these investors to vote to protect the climate and our savings. As stewards of public resources and the retirement savings of many people, public pension funds play a especially important role in protecting our money from the impacts of climate change. 

Climate change will impact every company, every sector, and every market all across the globe. If no further action is taken, the impacts of the climate crisis are projected to have unprecedented consequences for the economy. These losses will impact the ability of people to retire with the economic security they deserve. 

But pension funds can do something about this. Pension funds have the opportunity to vote in these critical climate elections at major corporations and banks every year.  Collectively, these pensions hold a lot of voting power at these companies, meaning how they vote can have a significant impact on how big polluters and financial institutions think about changing their climate practices. 

How pensions vote at these shareholder meetings is determined by their proxy voting guidelines, which are documents that outline what pensions believe are best business practices and how they’ll vote on key shareholder issues like climate. Having strong proxy voting guidelines means taking the right votes on corporate accountability. 

This year, pensions need to be pushed not only to take better votes at annual shareholder meetings, but to write better proxy voting guidelines so they can reliably and responsibly hold companies accountable for their climate impacts. 

Pension voting illustration
iStock / Nuthawut Somsuk

Annual shareholder season heats up

As the climate crisis worsens, it’s imperative for big investors like asset managers and public pension funds to show their support for critical shareholder proposals on climate at major corporations, vote out directors at companies with failing climate commitments, put real climate champions into boardrooms, and hold financial institutions to accountable for their fossil fuel financing.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share more information on the shareholder proposals that will be introduced at this year’s annual meetings.

Last year, many public pensions voted against shareholder proposals that called for an end to fossil fuel expansion or required companies to respect Indigenous rights. There’s no excuse: if these pensions vote no on similar proposals again this year, they’ll be blatantly disregarding climate science and the needs of frontline communities. 

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Send a message to state pensions telling them to hold big polluters accountable. Money talks. Let's make sure it's saying the right things.

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