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John Topping, 77, Dies; Early Advocate for Climate Action

John Topping, whose work to warn the world of the risks of climate change stretched back to the 1980s, and who helped spur the international effort to limit warming, died on March 9 at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. He was 77.

The cause was gastrointestinal bleeding, his daughter Elizabeth Barrett Topping said.

A Rockefeller Republican, Mr. Topping took on the emerging climate crisis when fighting planetary warming was still a bipartisan issue.

“John was an early actor,” said Rafe Pomerance, senior fellow at the Woodwell Climate Research Center in Massachusetts, who recalled Mr. Topping’s ability to connect people who might not otherwise have had much in common. “He brought a lot of interesting people to the table and got involved.” As a Republican of solid credentials, Mr. Pomerance said, Mr. Topping “reached out into places I had no access to.”

In a phone interview, Joe Cannon, who served as an Environmental Protection Agency official with Mr. Topping, called him “very patient” and said he had a “gigantic understanding of things — bureaucracy in general, and environmental policy in particular.”

James Hansen, a former NASA scientist who introduced Mr. Topping to climate issues in 1982, recalled a special quality Mr. Topping had as an advocate: “John was a jolly fellow, always upbeat and happy, even though he was working on what he knew was a serious problem.”

Dr. Hansen, who would become a prominent clarion of climate risk, said he first met Mr. Topping when the Ronald Reagan administration tried to cut his funding for research into carbon dioxide and climate change. Mr. Topping and Mr. Cannon got the research funded, but the gains were only temporary, Dr. Hansen recalled. Mr. Topping was disturbed to discover that, by his count, only seven people at the E.P.A. out of some 13,000 staff members were assigned to work on climate change and ozone depletion.

“Topping was frustrated with the administration, which wouldn’t take climate change seriously,” Dr. Hansen said, “so he finally decided to form his own organization.”

The organization that became known as the Climate Institute is widely considered the first nongovernmental entity dedicated to addressing climate change. Mr. Topping served as its president until his death.

Through the institute, he worked with the British diplomat Crispin Tickell on building a global partnership to deal with planetary warming, playing a part in the process that culminated in the creation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988. He also helped write sections of the panel’s first report, in 1990.

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

John Carruthers Topping Jr. was born on April 18, 1943, in Wilkinsburg, Pa., to John and Barbara Anne (Murray) Topping. His father was in the Air Force, and he had a peripatetic childhood that took the family to Scotland, Colorado, Germany, Maine, Japan and Massachusetts.

He graduated from Dartmouth in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and earned a law degree from Yale University in 1967.

After serving in the Air Force as a legal officer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, he entered the federal government, working to promote minority-owned businesses at the Advisory Council on Minority Business Enterprise and the Office of Minority Business Enterprise, part of the Department of Commerce, during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.

Mr. Topping would later join the Reagan administration, first at the presidential personnel office and then at the Environmental Protection Agency, where he served from 1982 until 1986, including two years as staff director of the Office of Air and Radiation. During his time at the agency, he threw himself into such efforts as removing lead from gasoline and establishing standards for particulate air pollution, as well as studying the risks of secondhand smoke.

He married Linda Thompson in 1974. They divorced in 2000. In addition to his daughter Elizabeth, he is survived by a brother, Dr. Trexler Topping; a son, John C. Topping III; another daughter, Alexandra Van Beek; and six grandchildren.

“He saw solutions where other people just saw a problem,” his ex-wife, Linda Thompson Gonzalez, who last year was a candidate for the Florida House of Representatives, said in an interview. She recalled that through the years, Mr. Topping was “distraught” over the lack of progress on climate change “when the solutions are out there, right in front of you, and you fail to do the right thing.” But when he did face those frustrations, he would “take out his yellow pad,” she said. “He expressed his frustration by trying to come up with a solution and a compelling response.”

Mr. Topping’s daughter Elizabeth remembered life in their busy household as “charmed.” “He was a connector,” she said. Dinners and parties at the Topping house brought together people with different ideas; disagreements were expected, but “discussion was always fun and always respectful,” she recalled. “I didn’t realize how unique that was.”

Elizabeth Topping said discussions with her father sometimes revealed aspects of his life she had not imagined. One day, she recalled, they were listening to Beatles records, and Mr. Topping said, “Oh, I met John Lennon once, with a few attorneys.” It seemed that the Nixon administration wanted to deport Lennon, and Mr. Topping was one of the lawyers brought in to consult on the matter. His role in the case was minor, he told her, but she recalled him adding, “It would have been much better if he’d been deported — he may not have been killed.”

Mr. Cannon said, “I think John’s defining characteristic is he did not have a speck of guile in him,” adding, “You don’t expect that in Washington.”

But, he added, Mr. Topping’s kind nature might have prevented him from being as effective as he could have been in that city, especially when those on the other side wielded guile to spare.

“He wouldn’t say bad things about people, even when we were fighting really bad people,” Mr. Cannon said. “He didn’t betray his principles to advance his interests.”

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