Sally Jewell has a blunt message for companies that get mixed up with climate doubters.

“There is nothing like a company’s reputation,” said Jewell, the secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, following a Thursday morning urban hike in Canada’s capital region with Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna.

Jewell, who previously worked as an engineer for Mobil Oil Corp prior to its merger with Exxon in 1999, explained that any business that deliberately tries to confuse the public, will wind up paying the price.

“It takes years to build (a good reputation) and then can be stripped down in a hurry and if a company is irresponsible in sharing misinformation they need to be held to account," said Jewell, who has also worked as a business executive in the banking and retail industries, prior to joining the Obama administration in 2013.

Jewell made the comments at a news conference in response to questions about whether some business executives have deliberately tried to confuse the public about climate change.

ExxonMobil blames activists for climate criticism

While she didn't single out any company by name, Jewell's comments followed a wave of media reports, led by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, focusing on how ExxonMobil Corp, the world’s largest publicly-traded multinational oil and gas company, and its Canadian affiliate, Imperial Oil, had spent years casting doubt on whether humans were contributing to climate change, even though they had received internal warnings, decades ago, from their own scientists that their business was part of the problem.

Catherine McKenna, Sally Jewell and Bruce Heyman chat about protecting national parks during an urban hike in Ottawa. Photo by The Canadian Press.

The company has denied it did anything wrong, describing criticism as politically-motivated attacks that were driven by discredited reporting that was funded by activists.

In Canada, Imperial Oil had recognized that carbon dioxide emissions were a “pollutant” as early as 1970, according to internal company archives uncovered by the DesmogBlog website. These archived documents, now stored at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, also show that the company recognized “there was no doubt” that carbon pollution was aggravating a problem in the atmosphere.

“I think that communities can (hold companies accountable) through their purchasing behaviour or their investing behaviour,” Jewell said at a news conference with McKenna at Canada’s Museum of History. “There’s nothing more important to a company than it’s reputation.”

Jewell also urged both the media and the public to hold businesses accountable for their actions.

“It doesn’t mean that 30 years ago we understood climate change or the impacts, but the intent to mislead is something that can be addressed by shining a spotlight on it, and no company will continue to be successful if their integrity and their reputation is questioned. So I think that that is a very important role for the public and a very important role for the press.”

McKenna provided a more cautious assessment of the public messages from industry.

“Look, we all know that climate change is real,” McKenna said. “I think that there have been challenges in the past. It’s not just industry that have had challenges understanding that, so we are now moving forward. We are working with indigenous organizations, we are working with environmental NGOs, we are working with business, we are working with the public to ensure that we are talking about climate change. taking about the science behind climate change and talking about how we move forward.”

Imperial Oil, which is holding its annual meeting for shareholders on Friday, did not respond to multiple requests for comment from National Observer.

Sally Jewell says U.S. preparing for climate refugees and relocation of villages

Jewell and McKenna were meeting to discuss how to enhance protection of national parks and better engage Indigenous communities in the management of protected areas. They also met with Indigenous leaders.

McKenna said that seeking input from the local communities in the North was critical - not only for protecting parks, but also for protecting their homes as their climate undergoes rapid changes.

“I think in the past, I’ve even been on panels where there was no one who was Inuit - talking about the Arctic,” McKenna said. “That’s not the way forward. And I think that (an important approach would include) understanding that the changing climate is not just about melting permafrost. It’s having a huge impact on cultures.”

Catherine McKenna and Sally Jewell
At a news conference, Catherine McKenna and Sally Jewell said the Arctic was undergoing rapid changes that are dramatically affecting Indigenous communities. Photo by Mike De Souza.

McKenna said that some of the challenges include the loss of ice highways that make it harder for communities to interact with other regions, exacerbating problems such as food security.

Jewell added that Indigenous communities are seeing major changes to life as they know it.

“The changes are underway and they are very rapid,” she said. “So we will have climate refugees. We have to figure out how to deal with potentially relocating villages or supporting communities in their adaptation and in building resilience within those communities to a changed reality that is different with regard to the plants and animal species on which the cultures depend and on which lives and livelihoods depend so there’s real tangible support that I think we need to do from a government basis, working along side Indigenous communities as they make very difficult choices about what’s right for them.”

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