Some happy endangered species news this week. A California plant thought to be extinct in the wild was recently upgraded to "endangered" after being accidentally uncovered by construction workers. Apparently, they were clearing brush for road construction near the Golden Gate Bridge and a botanist driving by saw the shrub and did a double take. The Franciscan Manzanita, a pretty red-wooded shrub with dark green leaves and white clusters of flowers, was thought to have gone extinct in the 1940s when its last known habitat, a San Francisco cemetery, was moved to make way for residential development. Because the rediscovery was so unexpected, and because the little plant was right in the middle of an active construction site, its fate is uncertain as local agencies discuss how to best handle the situation. Local conservationists are hoping the federal government can protect it under the Endangered Species Act, and according to the Center for Biological Diversity, they'll need all the help they can get. The CBD yesterday filed an intent to sue the Obama administration for dragging its feet and failing to make the "required findings to determine whether 144 species warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act..."

In tangentially related news, the koala may not have much time as a non-endangered species. Besides eating only eucalyptus and battling global warming, the fuzzy little guys have another, less expected threat: chlamydia. Yes, it's true, those cute cuddly marsupials have STDs. The koala population has fallen by nearly half (to around 50,000) since 2003, and many of them died from chlamydia. The koala version of HIV is also becoming more prevalent. Research to develop vaccines for both diseases is underway, but it's uncertain how scientists are exactly going to administer them to koalas in the wild.

 

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News from our other blogs on health and the environment.

Science v. Gossip: If you want to be taken seriously about warming, get peer-reviewed.

Problem With Joe: Harry Reid has a Joe Lieberman problem that changes daily.

Week One: A breakdown of Copenhagen's first week and biggest moments so far.

Public Option RIP: Medicare buy-in and public option are officially dead, says Kevin Drum.

Best Buy: A Medicare buy-in would crash an already fiscally troubled program.

Flip-Flops: Sen. Lieberman says he'll veto anything with a public option or buy-in.

Rx Poverty: Poor kids are often given meds instead of therapy.

CAMP TAJI, Iraq—Under the cover of night, an AH-64D Apache attack helicopter from the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, departs the flight line to conduct operations in support Operation Iraqi Freedom, here, Dec. 2, 2009. (army.mil.)

Need To Read: December 15, 2009

Today's must reads:

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One of the criticisms of cap-and-trade from the left is that it would create a gigantic new market in carbon trading that would allow Wall Street players like Goldman Sachs to generate a huge new asset bubble to replace the late lamented housing bubble.  After all, why else would Goldman have a legion of lobbyists working overtime on Capitol Hill to try and get cap-and-trade passed?

Dean Baker pours cold water on this theory today, but then says this:

The reason for the interest is much simpler. The outstanding value of carbon permits will almost certainly run into the trillions of dollars once the system is fully up and running. The annual trading in these permits and various derivative instruments (e.g., options, futures, swaps of various types) is likely to also run into the trillions of dollars, perhaps tens of trillions.

A market that trades $10 trillion a year would generate $25 billion a year in revenue, if fees and commissions average 0.25 percent. If Goldman can capture 30 percent of these trades by getting in on the ground floor, then it stands to generate more than $8 billion each year in revenue from carbon trading. This is enough to explain Goldman's enthusiasm for cap and trade — it's all about as clear as it can possibly be.

I've seen estimates like this before and I've never quite understood where they come from.  Here's a back-of-the-envelope guess about the size of the U.S. carbon market:

  • Total annual U.S. emissions come to about 6 billion tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent).
  • Most of the permits for these emissions will simply be allocated and used.  At a guess, maybe 20% of them will be traded on the open market.  That's 1.2 billion tons.
  • Another guess: each permit will trade hands four times a year.  That's 4.8 billion tons.
  • Price per ton on the European market is currently about $25/ton, so let's use that as a rough price guideline.
  • Bottom line: the total value of the carbon trading market comes to $120 billion.

There's a lot of guesswork there, so here's another data point: in the first half of 2009, the European ETS carbon market traded 3.1 billion tons of CO2e worth about $50 billion.  That comes to $100 billion per year for a market a little bit smaller than the U.S. market.  So that checks.

In other words, something in the neighborhood of $100 billion seems like a decent guess for the size of the U.S. cap-and-trade market.  Over time, as allocations decrease and trading increases, that will go up.  But in the near and medium term, it's going to be in the range of $100-200 billion, not $10 trillion, netting traders commissions of about $500 million or so.  That's just the basic trades, of course, but the derivative market for carbon ought to be simple commodity stuff like options, swaps, and futures, not the rocket science credit derivatives that fueled the housing bubble.  I don't have a good feel for how much that expands the market, but if it's 4x then commissions will come to $2 billion or so.  If Goldman gets 30% of that, they're looking at $600 million, which is about 1% of the $50 billion or so they book in revenue every year.  Not exactly a super gigantic new market for them.

Still, even $600 million is worth lobbying for.  And anyway, this is all rough guesswork and I might be way off. But I'm still curious where the trillion dollar plus estimates have come from.  They just don't seem to be in the right ballpark to me.

[We interrupt our Copenhagen coverage to bring you some important news about snail pie.]

Snails are different things to different peope. To some, they are garden pests. To children with allergies, they are pets. (I had one as a kid. Her name was Evita.) Still others like to eat them with butter and garlic in fancy French restaurants. And now, a Nigerian nutritionist proposes snails take on another role: nutritious pie filling for hungry Nigerians. Snails, the researcher notes, are cheap and abundant in Nigeria and many other developing nations, and they're a good source of protein, iron, and a bunch of vitamins.

Plus, they're toothsome:

Udofia and her research team baked pies of both varieties and asked young mothers and their children to try the tasty meal. Most of them preferred the taste and texture of the pies baked with the snail Archachatina marginata to those made with beef. The kids and their mothers judged the snail pies to have a better appearance, texture, and flavour.

If you're wondering what it's like to be at Copenhagen—surrounded by international leaders, skeptics, scientists, and reporters, all debating one of the most important issues of our time—check out this podcast with MoJo's Kate Sheppard.

On the scene in Denmark, she answers burning questions like: How are people reacting to "Climategate"? What's Lord Monckton like? And will the summit succeed?

Listen here.

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If you've been following developments in Copenhagen and find yourself doubting primate intelligence, check out the cephalopods, widely regarded as the smartest of the invertebrates. A new paper in Current Biology details the first scientific report of invertebrate tool use in the charismatic little octopus Amphioctopus marginatus, the veined octopus, who has a habit of carrying multiple coconut shells around (awkwardly, you'll see). This cumbersome behavior turns out to be well worth the trouble when the octopus deploys its coconut shell as a magical, instantaneous cloaking device.

I found the footage on YouTube, and although I don't speak German I can pretty well understand what they're talking about. I think.

During 500 hours of observation underwater, the Australian and Brit researchers report some veined octopuses traveling considerable distances—up to 20 meters—while carrying stacked coconut shell halves under their body, an ungainly motion the researchers call stilt walking. The only benefit of stilt walking to the ocotopus is to use the shells later as a shelter or a lair—a different strategy from a hermit crab living inside the discarded shell of a snail. The authors explain:

[The octopus behavior] highlights a key feature of widely used functional definitions of tool use—simple behaviours, such as the use of an object (or objects) as shelter, are not generally regarded as tool use, because the shelter is effectively in use all the time, whereas a tool provides no benefit until it is used for a specific purpose. This rules out examples such as the use of gastropod shells by hermit crabs, but includes situations where there is an immediate cost, but a deferred benefit, such as dolphins carrying sponges to protect against abrasion during foraging, and where an object is carried around in a non-functional form to be deployed when required.

So, if octopuses can think ahead and be prepare themselves for abstract threats and needs, why can't we?

Drugging the Poor

Poor children are more likely to occupy prisons and live near hazardous waste facilities than their middle-class peers—and now, The New York Times reports, children covered by Medicaid are prescribed antipsychotics at a rate four times higher than children whose parents have private insurance. Even more troubling: The FDA has approved many of these drugs to treat only schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, but doctors have been prescribing them to poor kids who suffer from more common conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), aggression, and "persistant defiance," which are often diagnosed by family doctors instead of psychiatrists.

The reason for this disparity? Medicaid often pays much less for family counseling and psychotherapy than private insurers do, and families living below the poverty line don't have time to attend counseling and therapy sessions anyway, the article posits. Poverty itself can exacerbate the many problems the kids are receiving medication for:

Experts generally agree that some characteristics of the Medicaid population may contribute to psychological problems or psychiatric disorders. They include the stresses of poverty, single-parent homes, poorer schools, lack of access to preventive care and the fact that the Medicaid rolls include many adults who are themselves mentally ill.

But drugging the poor doesn't come cheap:

Even though the drugs are typically cheaper than long-term therapy, they are the single biggest drug expenditure for Medicaid, costing the program $7.9 billion in 2006, the most recent year for which the data is available.

Since a large portion of state Medicaid spending is financed by grants from the federal government, pharmaceutical companies receiving Medicaid revenues benefit from overmedicating the poor, and so does the government, which receives a portion of the pharmaceutical companies' revenues from sales to Medicaid patients. Something to think about, given the fact that Congress is currently hammering out health care legislation that could increase the amount of people on Medicaid by 15 million.

It looks like both the Medicare buy-in and the public option are dead:

After a meeting among Senate Democrats today, Indiana Senator Evan Bayh said it looked like the proposed Medicare expansion would be dropped. “The general consensus was that we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good and in order to get all the insurance reforms accomplished and a number of other good things in the bill,” dropping the Medicare expansion “would be necessary to get the 60 votes,” Bayh told reporters.

Earlier, two top proponents of the public option, Senators Jay Rockefeller and Tom Harkin, said they would be willing to give up the public option to win passage. Harkin said he’d also be willing to forgo the Medicare expansion. The senators’ statements suggested a deal might be close. Harkin, an Iowa senator and chairman of the Senate health committee, and Rockefeller of West Virginia both said it was time to focus on what needed to be done to get a bill passed.

“This bill, without public option, without Medicare buy-in, is a giant step forward toward transforming American health care,” said Harkin. “That’s reality, there is enough good stuff in that bill that we should move ahead with it.”

Apparently CNN confirms this.  So in the space of a few days we seem to have gone from more than I expected to less than I expected.  I always figured we'd at least be able to get a public option trigger included, but if this report is right we're not even getting that.  Sic transit etc.