Interview by Karina Sinclair
Deeply passionate about environmental protection, W. Michael Thomas believes landscape horticulture professionals have a key role to play in climate change mitigation. To move green solutions forward, Thomas created the new HortProtect Climate Change Research Fund to help researchers, academics, and non-profit organizations find solutions for climate change, shoreline preservation, and other environmental concerns. By fronting $50,000 of seed money, he hopes others will contribute to the fund to create lasting opportunities.
The fund will be managed by the Ontario Horticultural Trades Foundation (OHTF) — Landscape Ontario’s registered charity that provides scholarships and grants to students studying landscape and horticulture — where Thomas has been an active board member for over 15 years. He is also the co-founder of People Corporation, an insurance company that has been providing HortProtect — a customized insurance plan to member companies of Landscape Ontario and the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association (CNLA) for decades. The new namesake fund reflects the group insurance program and the research “is to help ‘protect’ the ‘hort industry’ from the impact of climate changes,” Thomas said. “I like the dual meaning of HortProtect in that way, it lets ensure the future so that it’s safe.”
Landscape Ontario spoke with Thomas about the dangers of ignoring climate change, how those working in this profession can help mitigate climate-related disasters, and what he hopes recipients of the fund might accomplish.
What inspired you to start the HortProtect Climate Change Research Fund?
My family’s lifestyle is thanks to the work that I’ve done and the support from the industry over 40 years. So I wanted to give back. When I retired from full-time work and just did board work and a little consulting, that was when I had the financial ability and the desire to make a donation like I did and start a fund that I thought would be pretty relevant to the times.
What makes this program different from other climate change funds?
Well, specifically, as it relates to our board at the OHTF, we’ve been discussing for a while now to have growth in the research area from the funds that we have.
And at the same time, we also were talking about what we saw as a need out there among members to have help in running their practices in an environmentally friendly area in an environmentally friendly way. So with my connection there, I felt this would be the right fit for the OHTF. And my personal feeling is there can never be too much money out there for anybody that wants to do some work in the environment area and climate research in particular.
Why do you think it’s important that we have more support for climate change research?
I’m on three other environmental boards, and one of them is a board that affects water quality and shoreline preservation in cottage country. And we have a big, big debate that gets a bit hostile at times between those wanting to protect the water and the shoreline and landscapers and nursery growers who make their living off working in cottage country and landscaping and building hardscapes, and so on, on shorelines. And I felt we needed to have some tools for people in our industry so they could see the science and the effect that climate change is and will be having. And they can be valuable in the way they conduct their businesses, particularly in my experience around the shorelines in cottage country, so they can still make the living they want to make, but do it in an environmentally friendly way that keeps the water healthy and the shorelines productive with native planting of trees and shrubs and so on, as well as paying attention to not so much hardscaping right on the shore. It affects everything and we, in the industry of horticulture, can be the leader in that. We can help mitigate disasters with proper horticultural practices on the land.
When and how do you expect that this fund will roll out?
I think we’ll be ready to roll it out by this summer. It’s a seed fund, I call it. The money that’s initially in there, [considering] how much it costs to research in these areas, won’t go too long. So this is to motivate and communicate to others who have pockets that they can spend money on things like this. We’re trying to not only get it out for those that want to apply for grants, but get the word out for those that believe in the cause and will put more money into the fund. So if we can start a communication process in that two-pronged area, we’ll be ready to go and hopefully build it up quite a bit over the next couple of years. Information about the fund will be posted on the Ontario Horticultural Trades Foundation website
Who are the ideal recipients of this fund?
Non-profit organizations, academic organizations, individuals that are doing research, and in their Ph.D. studies, maybe their master’s studies — those are probably the groups where they have a practical and emotional interest in climate change. And they may be doing new and creative things. They’re going to have results that need funding, that are going to help everybody later on.
How influential do you think the horticultural landscape profession is in shaping the conversation around climate change?
Oh, it’s huge. If we take the nursery growers, they’re the ones that provide the plant material. So if they’re providing plant material that’s more native to where they’re working, they’re going to have an influence on the consumer who’s buying. The consumer trusts where it’s coming from. So if those people are planting native, we have less invasive problems. The landscapers, the landscape architects — if they start developing based on environmental and climate change impacts, the people that are paying them the money to do that trust them. That’s how the education will happen through to the consumer.
What do you hope they do with the money?
I hope they can use it along with whatever other sources of finance they have and need to look at some specific areas that give us some short and more particularly, long-term solutions that are communicable to others in a way that gets some action going so that people will look at the research that’s done and the results of it and say: “Okay, I understand now. Yeah, I can change a bit to accommodate that in a financially positive way and an environmentally positive way.”
What are the risks of ignoring climate change?
Think of our kids or grandkids, future generations. We want them to enjoy what we have and still do so. The risks are: increased flooding, more fires, and poor water quality, which affects lifestyle — urban and rural — and it affects everything. If we keep going the way we are going, we’re not going to reduce the number of catastrophic events that have been happening.