Snowy fields in Siberia
Kirill Zhurenkov

MOSCOW - The past month has brought record-breaking snowfall and cold snaps throughout central Russia. But the bad weather has done much more than spoil people’s moods and clog roads -- it has raised new alarms about global climate change.

First the data: March was one of the coldest in the past 50 years in Russia, with snowfall breaking a 40-year record. There was a total of 70 centimeters of snow in Moscow last month, while the Ministry of Emergency Occurrences cites extreme weather situations in 13 of the country’s central regions. The bad weather extended south to Kiev in Ukraine as well, where unusual snowfall closed down the city.

Now, April brings a quick rise in the mercury levels, giving us a meterological roller coaster with little time to catch our breath.

Snow in Moscow's Red Square - Photo: Paolo Crosetto

For the most part, we have yet to figure out the economic costs of this weather, but in Ukraine some observers are already sounding the alarm about lower harvest yields. The head of Russia’s national weather service said that seeds will have to be sown a couple weeks later than usual, which will mean losses of around 15%.

People are also worried that nighttime temperature drops will damage summer crops like apricots and peaches. Of course, the weather extremes will also affect grain harvests.

Andrei Sizov Jr., the director of the agriculture analytical center SovEkon, explains: “We were forecasting a grain harvest of around 84-89 million tons this year, but the central region is having a difficult winter, and that shortens the amount of pollination time. That means more work for people and machines, which means the quality of the harvest will suffer. In addition, more time under snow will give more opportunity to certain grain diseases to develop, which will in turn lead to lower quality harvests.”

Other experts, however, are telling people not to worry. Last year was a very bad year, with only 71 million tons of grain harvested, but that kind of loss is unlikely to happen. Sizov also says the climate can’t be blamed for all harvest woes, that other factors, like export markets, can have an important impact.

“The weather is totally crazy”

Nonetheless, the climate remains the main risk factor for farmers, both in Russia and abroad. “In most of the agricultural areas in Europe and the U.S. there is a drought. In Australia the weather is totally crazy – on one half of the continent there is drought, on the other, constant flooding,” said Boris Frumkin, head of the Institute of Economics at the Russian Academy of Sciences. “This prolonged winter is not a good sign for us.”

Experts say that the major March freezes are bad for both the winter crops and the yet-to-be-sown spring crops. According to them, the effects could be felt not only in the main agricultural areas, but also throughout the country. “Given that most of the agricultural land is not fertilized at all, it is much harder to find another way to get products to the buyers than it is in Europe,” Frumkin says.

Experts believe that Russia needs to follow the Europe’s example, where there are ways to minimize the effects of crops losses. For example, a new reform is underway in the European Union to investigate ways to adapt to climate change, such as providing incentives for farmers to cultivate at least three different crops.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agrees that farmers around the world need to adapt to a changing climate – things such as learning to collect water when it rains to be used in the hot months and to start cultivating drought-tolerant crops.

According to the FAO, Russia and Ukraine will recover from last year’s crop disaster, and the only country expected to have a lower yield this year than last is the United States, where severe drought from June to November damaged this year’s crops. Elsewhere in the world, the crop predictions are still looking pretty good.

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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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