Shareholder proposals in corporate proxy statements were once a footnote that many investors breezily brushed aside. Now that climate has changed, as shareholders warm to an environment in which companies should be held accountable. This year, eco-friendliness has become a particularly hot topic on their agendas.

The heat is on
Proxy Preview 2011, a collaborative report published earlier this week by As You Sow, Sustainable Investments Institute, and Proxy Impact, has laid out a detailed overview of shareholder proposals headed for votes at major companies' annual meetings this year. Sustainability and climate change appears to be the hottest topic on the agenda this year.

One-fourth of all proposals filed deal with environmental issues; 41 focus on climate change, 44 deal with natural resource management, and nine concern toxic ingredients in products. Another 37 relate to sustainability more generally.

You might think that the stocks you own aren't subject to such scrutiny, but you could be wrong. The list of companies being targeted for environmental proposals this year runs the gamut from the usual suspects in oil, gas, and utilities, to less expected companies in the technology and consumer sectors.

Here are just a few of the companies and proposals the report singles out:

  • Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN): Report on climate change assessment.
  • Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B): Adoption of goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at Berkshire's utilities arm.
  • CSX (NYSE: CSX): Develop fuel cells for its locomotives.
  • Dominion Resources (NYSE: D): Use of renewable energy.
  • Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS): Report on climate change science and risks.
  • Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK): Report on climate change lobbying.

Meanwhile, shareholders have a slew of proposals at a wide range of companies regarding issues such as coal pollution, hydraulic fracturing, water use, nuclear power, and recycling.

It may be tempting to assume that these proposals won't get too far when it all comes down to a vote, but don't be too hasty. Overall average votes on social and environmental proposals climbed to 18% in 2010; that may not sound like much, but it's about double the support such proposals received in 2001. The Proxy Preview report also pointed out that while only five proposals received more than 20% of the vote in 2001, 82 achieved that benchmark last year.

Furthermore, in a few cases, environmentally geared proposals gained the support of the majority of shareholders -- a huge upset to convention. Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE) shareholders supported calls for climate-change assessment reports by 53.1% last year; a whopping 60.3% of Layne Christensen (Nasdaq: LAYN) shareholders supported a proposal demanding it publish a report on sustainability including climate change.

Addressing risks before it's too late
It's possible that 2011 could be a great year for shareholder votes on important corporate issues. After all the media attention paid to "say on pay" disputes like year, and the widely covered shareholder votes that challenged pay policies at companies like Motorola and Occidental Petroleum, shareholder activism has earned a prominent place in the national spotlight.

No longer an afterthought in the back pages of corporate proxy statements, shareholder proposals now draw welcome attention to behavior that could increase companies' future risks, including compensation, board diversity, animal welfare, human rights, and political contributions.

As the hottest days of spring's annual meeting season draw closer, shareholder proposals should be on all investors' required reading lists. You have your votes. How will you use them?

Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on corporate governance.

Berkshire Hathaway is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Amazon.com and Berkshire Hathaway are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Dominion Resources is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned; for more on this and other topics, check back at Fool.com, or follow her on Twitter: @AlyceLomax. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.