Show Hide image

A planet in peril

Oxfam's Phil Bloomer wonders whether the positive signals about a US change of direction on climate

President-elect Barack Obama’s representatives can expect a warm welcome from campaigners when they arrive at the UN’s climate change talks in Poznan, Poland in two weeks time.

His warning that we live on a “planet in peril” has raised hopes across the globe that an emphatic “yes we can” will replace the US’s current “no we won’t” negotiating position.

US leadership to tackle climate change cannot come quickly enough. While the rich world concentrates on minimising the fall-out from the credit crunch, climate change is already having a devastating impact on developing countries.

Poor communities across the globe are struggling to survive a four-fold increase in the number of natural disasters – cyclones, droughts and flooding - they suffered a decade ago. People in Haiti were recently forced to live through three hurricanes in as many weeks.

Behind these headlines are millions of unheralded day-to-day tragedies: women forced to walk miles further every day to find water for their children; farmers faced with changing weather patterns forced to guess when best to plant their seeds only for unusually heavy rains to wash them away; children pulled out of school to help raise extra money in face of rising food prices and failing crops.

And the situation is deteriorating fast. UN reports show that by 2020, up to 250 million people across Africa may face severe water shortages.

If his Kenyan roots offer hope that Obama will pay greater heed to the damage climate change is already inflicting, then his rhetoric suggests he has absorbed the lessons of Lord Stern’s review of the economics of climate change. Published two years ago, the UK Treasury-funded study revealed that global warming could wipe out upwards of 20 per cent of global economic output forever. Such a climate crunch would dwarf our current problems.

It is also to be hoped that a dose of Obama optimism will help sway leaders such as Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Poland’s Donald Tusk who have led efforts to water-down ambitious action on climate change, claiming that short-term economic recovery must trump action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In place of their false conflict between prosperity and planet, will be a new willingness to kick-start the economy through investment in green technologies.

But hope will only take us so far. It would be unrealistic to expect Obama to make all the running on an issue that remains controversial in the US. If the hopes that his election will mark a turning point for the millions of poor people affected by climate change are to be realised, then the world needs other leaders to help turn his rhetoric into reality.

There is a real opportunity for Gordon Brown to enhance his global reputation for decisive action gained during the credit crunch. The British Prime Minister is well placed to lead the world towards a green new deal thanks to his strong track record of action on international development, his willingness to press for ambitious action in global climate change talks, and his championing of the UK’s world-leading Climate Change Bill. Early indications from Obama’s advisors suggest the US may follow Britain’s lead and adopt a target for reducing greenhouse gas emission by 80 per cent by 2050.

This makes it doubly disappointing then, that when it comes to helping people in developing countries adapt to the damage caused by climate change, the UK has sided with those in the European Union looking for excuses not to act.

To their credit, European parliamentarians last month voted for half the revenue from the EU-wide auction of carbon trading permits to be given to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and develop clean energy. The money would be invested in vital projects to protect poor people from the worst effects of climate change such as: better irrigation and water-harvesting practices, early-warning systems for floods, developing drought-tolerant crop varieties, building higher roads and bridges.

This is a win-win proposition. It’s new money and does not require Member States to increase core spending. And the amounts raised should be big enough to match the scale of the need - by 2020, auctioning emissions permits to polluting businesses could raise up to €75 billion (£61bn) a year. It’s also fair, since, following the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the money comes from Europe’s largest and dirtiest industries, which caused the problem.

But Member States, the UK included, worry that earmarking revenues breaks public spending rules, and sets problematic precedents. These are reasonable concerns. But as Mr Brown’s response to the credit crunch shows, a willingness to embrace new thinking is vital in tackling major problems on a global scale. Disputes about where money comes from cannot be used as an excuse for failing to provide the scale of investment necessary to protect poor people from the climate change of our creation.

If Gordon Brown is serious about being a climate change leader he should remove the UK objection to the parliamentarians’ proposal and instead apply the same political pressure that he did during the credit crunch to persuade fellow EU Member States to make the right decisions on the EU climate change package over the next days and weeks.

Oxfam’s research estimates developing countries need at least €38bn (£31bn) annually, beyond existing aid, just to cope with climate change impacts that are now unavoidable. In this context, the €133 million (£109m) rich countries have currently pledged to the UN fund for poor countries’ most pressing adaptation needs is little more use than a sticking plaster in the aftermath of a tsunami. It is a seventh of the cost of building the new Wembley.

It would be ironic, if after years of complaining of US intransigence on climate change, the EU greeted the promise of action by Obama with a watered down package, and a feeble “no we can’t”.

Phil Bloomer is Oxfam GB Campaigns and Policy Director

Show Hide image

As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.