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Choosing hope: interview with Nigel Topping

Nigel Topping, the UK's high level climate action champion

Choosing hope: interview with Nigel Topping

“I tend to think that whether you hope or despair is a choice,” Nigel Topping, the UK’s high level climate action champion tells Holyrood. “Because the evidence of how badly we’re screwing up is pretty overwhelming, right?”

You might be surprised to learn that those words from Topping – a brutally honest assessment of where we are in the fight to slow global warming – predate the recent publication of a sobering report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned of increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding. For the scientists, human influence was “unequivocal”, for United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres it marked a “code red for humanity”.

Cutting though they may be, Topping’s words are accurate. The reality is that global warming of 1.5C and 2C will be exceeded this century unless deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions happen soon. The facts are a lot to digest and must prove a burden for someone in Topping’s position, but he chooses to remain positive – “a conscious, cultivated stance” of his, he says.  

“I think you can be entitled to be angry, depressed and overwhelmed because we really are messing things up,” he adds. “We’ve known that for a long time. We’re still not doing anything like enough. 

“What can you do with that? You can cry or you can say, I’m just going to live my life and let someone else deal with it, or you can shout. But I think you can only change things if you believe that it’s possible to change things and then you act on that and that, fundamentally, is a choice to hope.

“Not like, la la everything’s going to be fine, but I believe that we can influence the future and, if enough of us try hard enough, we will change the trajectory. I think that’s the activist’s mindset – it’s always one of hope.”

Topping was appointed to the champion role in January 2020 and is responsible for driving action from businesses, investors, organisations, cities and regions on climate change, while coordinating this work with governments and parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The position was created at the Paris talks in 2015 to help realise ambitions of lowering carbon emissions and building resilience to climate change. 

A quick glance at Topping’s CV and it becomes clear why he was considered the man for the job. A maths graduate from Cambridge, he spent 18 years in the private sector in emerging markets and manufacturing before changing course and completing an MSc in Holistic Science in 2007. 

During his master’s degree, his research focused on harnessing the power of business to improve the state of the world. He would meet Paul Dickinson, one of the founders of the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), for a meal and be offered a job before they had ordered their starters. The organisation runs the global disclosure system for investors, companies, cities and regions to manage their environmental impacts. 

“That was the beginning of the most entrepreneurial period of my career,” he says. “I hadn’t expected that. I thought if I go and work in a not-for-profit organisation maybe I’ll feel more purpose because the mission is to improve the state of the world, but I didn’t expect it. 

“I kind of thought entrepreneurialism was a private sector thing but entrepreneurialism is about being creative and finding new ways of surviving and solving things and bringing money in and in a way, you need that more in a startup not-for-profit, which is what I joined at CDP.”

After CDP, Topping was CEO of We Mean Business, a global non-profit coalition, driving collaboration among partners and working closely with leaders from the business and policy community to accelerate action on climate change. 

I believe that we can influence the future and, if enough of us try hard enough, we will change the trajectory. I think that’s the activist’s mindset – it’s always one of hope

When he was later asked to become high level climate action champion by Claire O’Neill, the former COP26 president designate, it didn’t take Topping long to make his decision. 

“The minute she asked me, I knew that’s what my whole career had been working towards for the last 30 years and so it took me no time at all to say yes.

“It’s been a really interesting stretch, because it means I’m now working with a much broader community. I tended to be working more with business in the global north, now I work with businesses, cities, investors, civil society in the global south as well. I’m really enjoying it.

“It’s meant collaboration on a bigger scale. We work with hundreds of partners, including the We Mean Business coalition, but many more now. It’s been about shaping the communications about what we’re trying to do, so the Race to Zero and having these breakthroughs. 

“It’s been a dream job… I’m very focused on Glasgow but also really looking forward next year to working with an African champion and doing a lot more work focused on Africa, with COP27 in Africa.”

We are now less than two months from COP26 in Glasgow, where world leaders will reflect on what has or hasn’t been achieved since the Paris agreement in 2015, as well as what needs to be done to secure global net zero by 2050 and keep 1.5 degrees within grasp. 

For Topping it will be a return to the city where he was born in 1965 and the country which played a significant part in sculpting his love of the environment. 

“My father was a civil engineer, so we tended to move, but I lived in Scotland for the first six years of my life, including in the far north in Thurso and then near the Black Isle in a little village called Maryburgh. My earliest memories are of those wild, open, northeast beaches, places like Wick, so [it’s] very important to me.

“I’ve become much more of a global citizen but that’s where I come from and I think, in particular, my love of wild places comes from having spent the very earliest years in very wide, open spaces, where a beach was somewhere you would put an anorak on to go and visit, not swimming trunks.”

Delving further into his passion for the outdoors, Topping speaks of the influence of his father, an outdoorsman who travelled to Iceland and Spitsbergen. “Like lots of young British kids, I had this idea of Shackleton and Scott of the Antarctic and the romantic idea of cold places. 

“And growing up in Scotland, where the hills and the coasts were wild. So, I grew up with that love and all of our holidays were walking holidays. And then when I was older, I was able to go on my own climbing expeditions to Greenland, Iceland and Patagonia. 

“I think my love of the wilderness comes from a combination of my father and then actually growing up in a place where it was on your doorstep. The beautiful thing about Scotland is even if you’re in the middle of Glasgow, you’re not far away from the hills.

“Because my father was a civil engineer, I had this thing about building things and real people making things and I went into industry. The first 20 years of my career were in industry and what I’ve done is brought those two sides of me together – real people making real things and how that impacts our wilderness areas and how do we solve that.”

Soon he’ll be back in Glasgow, with COP26 scheduled to kick off at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) on 31 October and run until 12 November. 

It will be like a 24/7 COP, because I think we will be talking about climate change in the pubs in the evening and then over breakfast in the morning

It’s particularly exciting for the city to be on the world stage, Topping says, and “to show in a gritty Glaswegian way what this transformation can be about. 

“One of the exciting things is quite often these big events are held somewhere in a big, flashy centre that’s 30 miles out of town, so people might stay in the city in hotels, but everyone gets a bus or train 30 miles out and then comes back in. 

“The great thing about Glasgow and the venue is it’s really convivial, everything’s close. You can walk from the SEC into the city, from the SEC you can cross the Clyde to go to the Science Centre in the green zone. 

“I think that this will be a more human COP… I think it’ll be much more in the city than COPs often are – often the people come to the city then they go out. They sort of commute out of the city and then back in, in a weird way, but I think it will be much more in the city.

“I think that’s going to give it a different vibe than previous COPs. It will be like a 24/7 COP, because I think we will be talking about climate change in the pubs in the evening and then over breakfast in the morning.”

As the conversation unfolds, so does an energy and enthusiasm from Topping that is infectious. But he concedes himself that the size of the task at hand can be overwhelming. 

“Sometimes it does overwhelm me,” he reflects. “Sometimes I’m drawn to tears at the state of the world and how slowly we’re dealing with things. Sometimes I get very angry at the lack of leadership.”

How does he respond to the pressure and stay positive? Topping credits his wife Ann, “who doesn’t take any shit,” his team and exercise. He did a “mad bike ride” in June called the Dartmoor Classic, completing 110 kilometres over hilly terrain.

“Doing things like that with friends is great. That’s very grounding. There’s nothing grand about slugging up a big hill in Dartmoor. It’s just you and the hill.

“I like counting white lines on the road,” he laughs. “Ten pedal strokes, there’s another one – one white line at a time, one hill at a time. I’m not thinking about how to save the world then, I’m thinking how to get up here without walking.

“In a way that’s all we can do with this work on climate change – face the task ahead of us. We’re clear where we’re trying to get to, but you only get to the top of the hill by one pedal stroke or one stride at a time and so that’s all you can do is your best in the moment.”

It’s a profound point made from a light-hearted story and it leads us into the question of what next for Topping? His role lasts two COP cycles, meaning he will step down towards the end of 2022. 

“I think our collective task this century is to build a sustainable and much more equitable society,” he says. “I think one way or another that’s what I’ll be working on for as long as I’m working, because that’s not the task of five or ten years, that’s the task of the next 50. 

“The one thing you realise when you work in detail on climate change is just how unjust the world is and how structural that injustice is. We’ve basically been living off nature and living off the disenfranchised and the poor. So that’s enough to keep anyone busy for the rest of their career.”

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