ESG resolution round-up: NBIM and US pension funds side with company over taser drone proposal

CalSTRS, CalPERS and NYC public funds join Norway’s sovereign fund in rejecting resolution at Arizona-based taser maker; Support for Follow This plummets at US oil giants.

NBIM, the manager of Norway’s trillion-dollar sovereign wealth fund, has joined with several US public pension giants in opposing a proposal calling on Axon Enterprises to discontinue development of remotely operated taser drones – a technology most of the Arizona-based taser maker’s own ethics committee have voted against pursuing. 

The proposal, filed by campaign group Open Mic, went to the vote on Wednesday. Results from the annual general meeting have not yet been posted on the US Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) website. 

When asked about the rationale for its opposition to the proposal, the Office of the New York City Comptroller, which oversees the city’s five pension funds, directed Responsible Investor to its proxy guidelines. 

Californian pension giant CalPERS told RI that it “generally votes against shareholder resolutions that are overly prescriptive or related to ordinary business matters best left to the managers and board members”. 

The spokesperson for its sister fund CalSTRS said it would not comment on the specific votes but added: “We actively cast our proxy votes in support of corporate board members and resolutions that align with our interests and philosophy.” 

NBIM told RI it does not comment beyond what is disclosed on its website.

While CalSTRS opposed the shareholder proposal, it voted against six Axon directors, including the CEO. CalPERS voted against four directors at the company and NYC voted against one.

Dutch investor giant APG abstained on the shareholder proposal, according to its website. 

Axon’s plan to develop taser-equipped drones was rejected by the majority of the firm’s AI Ethics Advisory Board in May 2022, even on the “limited” basis that the technology would only be used by the police.  

Despite this, the following month, Axon’s founder and CEO, Rick Smith, floated the idea that “non-lethal drones” could be “installed in schools and other venues and play the same role that sprinklers and other fire suppression tools do for firefighters: preventing a catastrophic event, or at least mitigating its worst effects”. 

This announcement, which came in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting in Texas, prompted nine members of the company’s ethic board to resign.  

“Axon’s announcement came before the company even began to find a workable solution to address many of the board’s already-stated concerns about the far more limited pilot we considered, and before any opportunity to consider the impact this technology will have on communities,” the board wrote in a statement from June 2022. 

Within days, Axon announced that it was pausing the project. 

A spokesperson for the company told RI it has “no plans to encourage the adoption of less-lethal drones in schools at this time” and had shifted its focus to “other various payloads that can support use cases with more immediate needs”. 

They added that the idea of such drones in schools had “never moved past a concept and we have not progressed any development on this use case to date”. 

Axon opposed the shareholder proposal and stated in its annual report that the request “inappropriately seeks to constrain our efforts to explore creative solutions to advancing our mission and asserts gross inaccuracies about TASER devices”. 

It added that the company has not yet shipped any product that includes a taser on a drone, but said it believes such technology should be developed and that it is the right organisation to do so.  

In an SEC filing last month, urging shareholders to back the resolution, the proponents stated that Axon’s executives have “failed egregiously at every step to adhere to basic corporate governance procedures, including management’s own internal systems”. 

Open Mic also wrote that the company added the term “nonlethal” to the text of proposal when including it on its proxy statement.

The campaign group questioned the application of “nonlethal” to tasers, and cited data from a US database saying that since 2010 at least 513 cases have seen people die soon after police used tasers on them.  

Support for Follow This plummets at Exxon and Chevron 

This week also saw support for Follow This plummet at US oil majors Chevron and Exxon, with just 10 and 11 percent support, respectively, for the Dutch activist’s refined climate proposal. 

Last proxy season, 28 percent of Exxon’s shareholders and 33 percent of Chevron’s backed Follow This’ requests that the firms set and publish Paris-aligned medium- and long-term emission reduction targets covering their full value chains.  

Follow This refined its request this year, asking the duo to set Paris-aligned medium-term reduction targets for emissions linked to the use of their products (Scope 3). 

The vote took place amid record profits for the oil and gas sector and the growing anti-ESG backlash in the US.  

“It’s incomprehensible that most investors still accept the US super majors’ refusal to cut emissions this decade,” said Mark van Baal, founder of Follow This. 

“We have made it easy for investors to use the power of their votes, but most investors have yet to decouple short-term profits from long-term risks for the company and their portfolios.” 

Record tally at Total 

Follow This’s proposal fared much better at TotalEnergies, attracting 30 percent support last Friday at the French oil major’s annual meeting. 

Support for the proposal, which was filed with the support of 17 European investors, including Man Group, PGGM and MN, equals the highest level of backing for a Follow This climate resolution at a European major. However, unlike the proposal at Shell in 2021, this year’s proposal at TotalEnergies was consultative rather than binding.  

Another sizable vote occurred on the same day (26 May) at Glencore when 30 percent of investors backed the resolution calling on the Anglo-Swiss miner to disclose how its thermal coal production and capex aligns with the Paris agreement. It was filed by investment heavyweights Legal & General Investment Management and HSBC Asset Management.   

The tally makes it the second highest vote ever recorded for climate-related shareholder resolution not supported by management on the London Stock Exchange. It also means that under the UK Corporate Governance Code, Glencore is required to consult with its shareholders on the reason for the result.  

Another blow for the miner was the substantial opposition to its 2022 climate progress report, which was backed by 70 percent of investors.