ExxonMobil is facing down what could be a historic vote.

On Wednesday, the Annual General Meeting of what was once the largest publicly-traded oil company on earth kicked off with a showdown over a proxy fight that has been building force for months.

On one side, the board and management of the Irving, Tx.-based oil and gas giant, arguing that the company is well prepared for any energy transition, while insisting that the world will be reliant on oil and gas for decades to come.

On the other, a small investment firm founded by veteran hedge fund partner Charles James, called Engine No. 1, arguing that years of slowing returns and mounting debt for Exxon have shown it needs energy-specific sector guidance to help it embrace change—and has put forward its own four nominees for the Board.

The meeting comes at a tense time for ExxonMobil. Although the company banked $2.7 billion in net earnings in the first quarter of 2021, helped by rising oil prices and rounds of cost cutting, its mammoth $22.4 billion loss and record debt in 2020 are casting a long shadow over the company.

It also has huge implications for other companies facing pressure over their approach to reducing emissions and managing energy transition. Though Engine No. 1’s campaign would otherwise be a classic activist campaign, long-time Exxon watchers say that a political shift with the election of Joe Biden, and sudden momentum on climate action in the finance world, sets this vote apart.

“Investors have been expressing discontent, but there’s never been an alternative path forwards before,” said Edward Mason, who previously led engagement with Exxon on behalf of Climate Action 100+, in his role as head of responsible investment at the Church of England’s investment arm. Mason has since moved to a new role as a director at Generation Investment Management, which is not invested in Exxon, but he has continued to follow the proxy war.

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“This year’s AGM really is a unique opportunity to effect real change on the Exxon board.”

On Wednesday morning, the opening salvo at the virtual meeting came from Charlie Penner, a partner at Engine No. 1 and the lead on the ExxonMobil campaign.

“Change won’t be easy, and even under the best of circumstances will take years. Unfortunately, rather than being open to the idea of adding qualified energy experienced to its board, we believe ExxonMobil once again closed ranks, despite the increasingly diminished long term returns of this approach,” he said.

“The good news is, we believe no matter what the outcome of today’s vote, change is coming.”

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