Monday, September 29, 2014

African Agriculture Vulnerable to Climate Change

The Africa Agriculture Status Report 2014 was released on September 2. One of the things it stated was that malnourishment in Africa could jump 40% by 2050 due to climate change. African farms are generally small, one-family affairs and the study finds they are more vulnerable to climate change.
As is made clear by the contributing authors of this publication, one of the key sectors that is already and will increasingly be affected by climate change is agriculture. This is particularly true for agriculture in developing countries, and especially for countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Rapid and uncertain changes in rainfall patterns and temperature regimes threaten food production, increase the vulnerability of African smallholder farmers, and can result in food price shocks and increased rural poverty. As noted elsewhere in this publication, agriculture – even the low-input smallholder agriculture of sub-Saharan Africa – is both a ‘victim and a culprit’ relative to climate change.

Although developing countries, especially those in Africa, are likely to bear the brunt of climate change, none of us will be immune to its impacts. It is time we acted together and be reminded that, when it comes to the devastating effects if climate change, we all swim – or sink – together. This is not the time to play the blame game.
AASR 2014 - Forward

Question: Where are all of the contrarians that keep saying climate change will be good for farm crops?

This is just one of many instances we have seen recently detailing how the poorer you are, the more you will suffer from climate change. And, at the same time, we see that the richer people are, the harder they work to prevent anyone from doing anything about it.

It isn't surprising that this is what is going on. After all, that is just the way the world works. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

No, what I find surprising - and disappointing - is how many people allow themselves to think these rich people are taking care of them and blindly follow along with what they are told. Why is it the rich fossil fuel people are providing the bulk of the funding used by the denier industry?

And, why do you believe them?

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Dirty Little Truth Fox News Doesn't Want You To Know About Climate Change

A quick quiz: How can you tell a climate change denier is lying? Answer: His lips are moving.

The recent incarnation of this is Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger in his article carried by Fox News this week. He wants to claim that there are these 'truths' that Obama doesn't want you to know about climate change. Well, I don't know what Obama does, or doesn't, want you to know and I really don't care. Obama is near the very bottom of my list of people that I like. But, climate change, obviously, is way up there on the list of things I care about. So, let's take a look at the list of 'truths' he claims Obama doesn't want us to know.

1. Temperature records
Bolstering this barrage of alarmism is last week’s finding from the federal government’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that the global average surface temperature for August 2014 was the highest ever recorded for the month.

But the anomalous warmth in August still fell short of the all-time record for all months. That record was set nearly 200 months ago in February 1998. And that’s the real news. In this era of human-caused global warming, what is taking so long to set a new global temperature record?
So, let's be clear on what Mr. Knappenberger is saying, and wants everyone to buy. Record temperature after record temperature is being set and continues to be set, but manmade global warming isn't real because the one record monthly high temperature was set in 1998 and hasn't been broken yet. And, that month occurred during the period of global warming? Is that right?

In short, Mr. Knappenberger wants to ignore the entire database and make a judgement based on a single datum point. Thousands of data points to the contrary be damned. And, be sure to read what he said, not that the hottest monthly average ever recorded happened in 1998, but the hottest anomalous month occurred then. This is the month with the greatest discrepancy relative to the long-term average.

So, Mr. Knappenberger, why didn't you focus on the month with the hottest average ever recorded? Or, why didn't you discuss the year with the hottest average ever recorded? Or, the second? Or, the third? Or the decade with the hottest average ever recorded? Or, the second hottest?

The answer to these questions is that they have all occurred since 2000. That would not sit well with his denier claims.

And, that is a truth he doesn't want you to know about.

2. Temperature Anomalies

The rise in the Earth’s average surface temperature basically stopped, “global warming” morphed into “climate change,” and it has been 16.5 years since the last all-time all-month record monthly temperature anomaly was set.
What is the significance of this statement? This statement is so silly I didn't even bother researching to find out if his claim is correct, or not. The claim itself is the lie.

Mr. Knappenberger, the concern is "global warming", not "global record temperature anomaly". We need to look at one question, "Is the planet getting warmer?" The answer is, "Yes, it is". The 1980s were the hottest decade ever recorded at the time. Every year in the 1990s was hotter than the average of the 1980s, making the 1990s the hottest decade ever record at the time. Every year of the 2000s was hotter than the average of the 1990s, making the 2000s the hottest decade every recorded at the time. Every year of the 2010s has been hotter than the average of the 2000s, making the 2010s the hottest decade ever recorded. At least, at the time. Just wait for the 2020s. And, the 2030s. And,....

And, that is a truth Mr. Knappenberger doesn't want you to know.

3. Professional Deniers
Just-published research from University of Guelph’s Ross McKitrick pegs the length of the hiatus, or “pause”—the period of no statistically significant rise in the earth’s average temperature—at about 19 years. 
Funny. Ross McKitrick is a economist and takes money from the fossil-fuel industry. His work has been shown to be fraudulent. If his claims are so valid, why does he need to turn to someone like this for information? Why not use the scientific literature?

And, that is a truth Mr. Knappenberger doesn't want you to know.  

4. Not Matching Forecasts
Looking back even further, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows that since the mid-20th century, observed global warming has been less than expected.
Mr. Knappenberger's claim here is that the globe didn't warm as much as some forecasts had predicted, therefore it isn't real. In other words, global warming isn't real because global warming is real, but not as bad as someone predicted it would be.

One more truth Mr. Knappenberger doesn't want you to know.

5. Computer Models
In short, all those computerized climate models that predicted large, accelerating, and generally uninterrupted warming were wrong. And it has the believers in those models scratching their heads.
Global warming is not proceeding as planned.  The climate appears less sensitive to our emissions of greenhouse gases than expected. The urgency to grant the government the authority to limit energy choice is not justified.
To be clear, the models have actually been pretty good, certainly much better than deniers claim. This is just one more denier lie that is making the Internet airways. I reviewed all of these claims about models and wrote a posting about it, which you can read here.

One more truth Mr. Knappenberger doesn't want you to know.

6. Mr. Knappenberger Has Ties to the Fossil Fuel Industry

According to his article, Mr. Knappenberger is the Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Institute. The Cato Institute was founded and is funded by the Koch Brothers.

First, we learned he was lying. Now, we know why.

And, that is a truth Mr. Knappenberger doesn't want you to know.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Jon Stewart Takes Down Republican Deniers

Jon Steward covered the Climate March and did a very funny take down of some depressingly stupid congressmen. Watch it here.

Thanks to lebronjeremy for the heads up on this.

Well Written Review of Books

One of the things I missed over the Summer of the Challenge is a review of books on climate change, with an emphasis on Antarctica. Well, I finally caught up to it today and found it to be a well-written and interesting review and commentary. I recommend it for anyone that would like to learn more about the current situation.

Monday, September 22, 2014

NASA/NSIDC Statement On Sea Ice Minimum

NASA and NSIDC have confirmed that this year's Arctic sea ice minimum was the sixth lowest on record. Read the statement here.

Climate March and the Economy

Much to the dismay of the fossil fuel industry and the professional deniers, the People's Climate March held in New York City was an enormous success. Organizers had predicted 100,000 people would show up, while police said they expected 30,000. The reality is that more than 400,000 people participated in the march in New York, with thousands of related marches in cities all over the world. I noted that Fox News has their coverage of the event buried way back in their climate section without a word of it on the front page. I had to do a search to find the article. Meanwhile, I found front page coverage of the event on CNN, Yahoo! News, Google News, CBS News, and CNN Money, just to name a few after a quick search.

The denier industry is working on spin control on this one. Already, what they are saying is that its unimportant and people aren't concerned with climate change.  Their evidence is to point to a recent Gallup Poll that showed 41% of respondents listing economic issues as the most important issue facing the country, while only 1% listed climate change/environment as the most important issue. (You can apparently make more than one selection, so the total percentage is 141%.) So, is this proof that people aren't concerned with climate change? No, this is actually just the latest example of how the denier industry is in the business of lying and deceiving.

Keep in mind this poll asked about what is the "most important problem", and didn't ask about what you might find to be the second most important problem, or the third. A Gallup poll from last spring showed that 39% described themselves as "Concerned Believers." Only 25% described themselves as "Cool Skeptics." Obviously, more than 1% of the population is concerned about climate change. That, by itself, puts the lie to the deniers.

But, that isn't the end of the story. Keep in mind, 41% said they thought economic issues were the most important. So, what does that have to do with climate change? Well, everything. Climate change is all about economic issues. Remember, it is the economy that led to global warming and it is the economy that is suffering because of it.

While contrarians made comments on this blog or sent me emails about how there was a big cold front across the Eastern U.S., with snow in the upper-Midwest, in early September, they ignored (very typical behavior) what was going on in the rest of the world, such as California. The West Coast, at the same time as the cool front in the east, was suffering a record heat wave and had to issue heat alerts as the temperature soared to record levels and was over 100 degrees in some areas. The Los Angeles interim health director cautioned people about the heat and stated, "it can be dangerous and even deadly," something we know about here in Texas, but the people in LA are not use to this kind of heat and many are unprepared. As a result, many will suffer and many will crank up the air conditioner, which will put a strain on the overstretched California power grid and drive up people's utility bills. Money they could have been spending on other things will now go to the utilities. Where do you make cuts in the household budget to pay extra utility expenses when the budget is already tight?

This is just the tip of the rapidly melting iceberg for California. Of course, the big news is the drought. Over 82% of the state is listed as being in "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. The National Weather Service is considering adding a new category to more properly classify the situation in California. Towns are going without water and over 17,000 jobs have been lost in the agriculture business. Estimates are that California will lose over $800 million worth of agriculture business because of the drought, part of the $2.2 billion in losses and added expenses the California agriculture sector will suffer this year. And, if you don't think you will pay for that loss I suggest you take a look at the prices at your local grocery store.

So many farmers are pumping ground water for irrigation that the ground is sinking and has already caused $1.3 billion in damage to roads, bridges and pipelines. An emergency $7.5 billion water bond is on the November ballot to expand the size of the reservoirs. Just looking at those last two items adds up to $8.8 billion to the 38 million people of California - over $230 per person, or nearly $1000 for a family of four. Keep in mind, that is the cost of just those two issues and doesn't include things like those lost ag jobs and lost ag business - and wildfires.

The drought has made the wildfire situation worse in California by drying out the landscape. One wildfire recently tripled in size and extended itself by more than 10 miles over night, a record growth, and forced the evacuation of over 3000 people while threatening 12,000 homes. Another fire destroyed 150 buildings in a northern California town. Again, someone will have to pay for all of this and I'm sure you can guess who it will be. Governments, businesses and insurance agencies will all pass the losses on to the consumer.

But, what about other areas?

Here is a news article about how the warming oceans are leading to changes in the range of fish. This will lead to overfishing of some species and loss of habitat for others - neither scenario being good for us. Expect to see the cost of seafood go up. And, if you are in the fishing industry, you are probably concerned about your future.

When it comes to insurance expect bad things. There were over $35 billion in U.S. private insured property losses in 2012 alone, $11 billion more than the average over the previous decade. That is about $115 per person across the U.S. for just 2012. Insurance companies are completely convinced that climate change is responsible. Their response? Raise rates, deny coverage or even drop existing coverage. One way or the other, they will get their $35 billion back.

So, we see there are lost jobs, increased costs, higher utility bills, destroyed homes and businesses, increased taxes, higher insurance rates, lowered standard of living - and all because of climate change.

Yes, we really should have economic issues as our number one concern. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

List of Challenge Submissions

During the height of the activity with the Global Warming Challenge I made a page that listed all of the submissions and updated it as I received new ones. This allowed people that made submissions to follow my progress. I recently went through all of the submissions - my personal waking version of a recurring nightmare - and added a synopsis to the listing for each submission describing what it was about. This made it a handy reference for anyone doing research on contrarian claims. Some of them were much less than credible, but some of them were typically representative of contrarian claims.

If you are looking for information on these kinds of claims (and the science), then I hope this can serve as a resource. Let me know if I can do anything to make it more useful. Happy hunting.

Arctic Sea Ice Minimum - The State of the Ice Fall 2014

It appears the Arctic sea ice has reached its minimum extant for this year. According to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), as of September 17, the sea ice extent was 5.016 million square kilometers and has begun to increase as autumn sets in. Last year's minimum was 5.101 million square kilometers, so there was a drop of about 85,000 square kilometers (about 33,000 square miles) this year from last year. That puts 2014 as the sixth lowest sea ice extent measured to date. Here is a plot showing the sea ice minimum extent for the last eight years, including 2014 (the incomplete line near the middle). The black line to the top is the long-term average.:

Source: NSIDC

As a function of trends, this year continues the observed 35-year trend of reducing sea ice. Here is the trend line for September through the end of 2013 (the last complete September on record):

Source: NSIDC
Using the 1981-2010 mean listed on the graph, I calculate this year's minimum was 22.8% below the long-term average (6.5 million - 5.016 million/6.5 million x 100%). That puts this year's minimum close to the trend line. So much for claims (and hopes) the ice was recovering.

Unfortunately, there is much more to the story about ice than just the Arctic sea ice extent. Sticking with the north, for now, let's look at a couple of other things.

In addition to the amount of area covered by the Arctic sea ice, we are also concerned with the volume of the ice. As ice gets older, it gets thicker from being jammed up by waves, winds and currents. Older ice is typically thicker ice. This is important because it means it takes more to melt it during the melt season. Young ice is thinner and melts more easily. So, what is the trend for the ice volume?:
Source: PIOMAS

This shows the ice volume trends for both the end of the melt season (red line on bottom) and the end of the freeze season (blue line on top). Note how both trend lines show a significant decrease in volume. But, also, note there has been a short-term increase in volume since 2012 (the great collapse of Arctic sea ice). This illustrates both why 2012 was such a bad year and why we have seen a rebound since then. But, even with the 2013-14 rebound, the trend is unmistakeable - ice volume is decreasing.

The sea ice is not the only melting ice in the north, the Greenland Ice Sheet is also melting at an alarming rate. Here is a plot showing how much mass the ice sheet is losing due to melting (the vertical dashed-line marks June 2006):
Source: Polar Portal

The ups and downs in the graph are due to seasonal changes, but the overall trend is unmistakeably down. This shows the ice sheet has lost about 2000 billion tons of ice since 2006, an average of more than 140 billion tons per year. If there is no global warming, where is the heat coming from to melt all of this ice?

But, this is only half of the story and contrarians love to point at the Antarctic sea ice. So, let's leave the north and go south. In this regard, the contrarians are correct, the Antarctic winter sea ice extent has been increasing. But, as is usually the case, they don't want to tell the whole story.

First, the sea ice:
Source: NSIDC
This plot shows the maximum sea ice extent (the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere). Again, there is a clear trend of increasing sea ice. But, there is a huge difference between Arctic sea ice and Antarctic sea ice. The Arctic is an open ocean surrounded by land. The Antarctic is an ocean surrounding a continent of ice. The Antarctic sea ice nearly all melts during the melt season. But, the real question is, what is happening to the Antarctic Ice Sheet? Take a look:

Source: Velicogna Research Group

This graphic, from a research paper on the topic, shows both the mass loss for Greenland (left) and Antarctica (right) as measured using data from the GRACE satellite. This is what the contrarians don't want to discuss. Yes, the sea ice extent is increasing in the south during the winter, but it is melting during the summer and the land ice is melting at a large rate - about 70 billion tons per year.

A recent paper indicates this might be a factor in the increasing amount of sea ice. The melt water is not mixing well due to the circumpolar currents that isolate Antarctica. As a result, the top layer of ocean water is less salty and would freeze more easily.

In any event, we know the amount of ice is decreasing and the situation is not good for us. The changing polar environments are having an effect on the rest of the planet. The California drought has been linked to the loss of sea ice, and there was a forecast about that made ten years in advance. And, sea ice loss may have contributed to the formation and path of Superstorm Sandy. And, of course, all of that melt water running off Greenland and Antarctica is rising the sea level. These are just a couple of examples.

The record shows melting poles are changing things to our detriment.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

August State of the Climate Continues Trend

NOAA released its August 2014 State of the Global Climate report this morning and the bad news continues. Here are some of the highlights:
  • The combined average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces for August 2014 was record high for the month, at 0.75°C (1.35°F) above the 20th century average of 15.6°C (60.1°F), topping the previous record set in 1998.
  • The global land surface temperature was 0.99°C (1.78°F) above the 20th century average of 13.8°C (56.9°F), the second highest on record for August, behind 1998.
  • For the ocean, the August global sea surface temperature was 0.65°C (1.17°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.4°F). This record high departure from average not only beats the previous August record set in 2005 by 0.08°C (0.14°F), but also beats the previous all-time record set just two months ago in June 2014 by 0.03°C (0.05°F).
  • The combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for the June–August period was also record high for this period, at 0.71°C (1.28°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.5°F), beating the previous record set in 1998.
  • The June–August worldwide land surface temperature was 0.91°C (1.64°F) above the 20th century average, the fifth highest on record for this period. The global ocean surface temperature for the same period was 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average, the highest on record for June–August. This beats the previous record set in 2009 by 0.04°C (0.07°F).
  • The combined average global land and ocean surface temperature for January–August (year-to-date) was 0.68°C (1.22°F) above the 20th century average of 14.0°C (57.3°F), the third highest for this eight-month period on record.

This report continues the trend we have been seeing all year. See my previous postings on the state of the climate for June and July.

This is really grim. But, you know what the worst part is? Deniers will point at last weekend's cold snap and say that there is no global warming.

Let's update the tally for the year:

August was the hottest August ever recorded;

July was the fourth hottest July ever recorded;

June 2014 was the hottest June ever recorded;

May was the hottest May ever recorded;

April tied 2010 as the hottest April ever recorded;

March was the fourth hottest March ever recorded;

We got a break in February. It was only the 21st hottest February ever recorded;

But, that break followed the hottest January since 2007 and the fourth hottest January on record.

So, let's see what the score is so far for 2014: one 21st hottest month, three 4th hottest months, and four hottest months ever.

And, overall, 2014 is on track to be the third hottest year ever recorded.

But, the deniers will continue to claim the warming has stopped. That only works to make bad news even worse.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Is Fighting Climate Change Bad For the Economy?

One of the many false claims - and there really are a lot of false claims - made by the denier industry is that it would be bad for the economy if we did anything about global warming. Stop and think about that for a moment. That is like saying it is bad for the economy to put out house fires. If the house burns to the ground, the house and all of its contents will have to be replaced, thus creating jobs. If people get killed, so much the better because that will open up some jobs somewhere for someone else. So, every time the fire department puts out a house fire they are putting lots of people out of work.

You might think I'm being over the top in making that comparison to the denier industry and you would be right. The denier industry is much worse than what I just alluded to. The fact is, the world economy is suffering hundreds of billions of dollars, even trillions of dollars, in damages worldwide and it is estimated that as many as 400,000 people are dieing each year due to climate change. This is not some figure that is estimated for 100 years from now. This is what is going on right now, every year. And, that casualty figure does not include the number of people that become ill or injured, just the ones that die.

If you find that line of reasoning offensive, all I can say is that you should. And, you should find it offensive that the denier industry is saying global warming is good for us and everyone that listens to them is buying into it and repeating it. But, that's the point here. They are saying it and people (contrarians) are believing it. It makes me wonder what kind of horrible sickness do they have? Some kind of Ebola virus of the logical thought process, but it doesn't kill your body, just your ability to think logically - Ebola Denier.

All you have to do to see just how ridiculous the denier industry is on this issue is to look at who profits and who loses with global warming:

Winners: The Koch Brothers, Saudi Arabia, the coal industry, ExxonMobil, Venezuela, Iran, Islamic terrorists

Losers: Anyone having to pay for groceries, anyone having to pay for insurance, anyone having utilities they have to pay for, anyone that is concerned about getting a job, anyone living in a low-elevation area, farmers, ranchers, anyone that can get sick from diseases, anyone vulnerable to wildfires, anyone that is subject to the weather

Which one of those groups do you fall in? Then, if you are a contrarian, ask yourself - Why do you cling to your disproved beliefs? You are one of the losers, and you still want to believe what the billionaires are telling you? Apparently, they don't have enough money and you have too much. Take out your checkbook and write them a check.

The fact is, we can fight climate change and grow the economy at the same time. Again, stop and think about it. If we are spending money and doing work to fight global warming, where is that money going and who is doing the work? Is it really that hard? If we are spending a lot of money to fight global warming, the money has to go somewhere, it has to be spent on something. The purchase of products and services to fight global warming means someone has to make those products or provide those services. And, every time we talk about hard work to fight this problem, someone has to be doing the hard work. In both cases, we are creating jobs.

But, the denier industry will tell you that people will lose their jobs. And, this time they aren't lying to you. There are people that will lose their jobs if we fight global warming: The Koch Brothers, coal industry executives, oil industry executives, Islamic terrorists, government officials in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran. 

Now, I think, we can all see why so much money and effort is being put into preventing anyone from doing anything about global warming.

Here is an interesting report on the effects on the economy from fighting global warming.

Monday, September 15, 2014

2014 Arctic Sea Ice Extant Now Sixth Lowest Ever

According to data from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic sea ice extent has now reached a low of 5.082 million square kilometers and is still declining. That is now less than the minimum extent of 5.101 million square kilometers recorded in 2013. In addition to 2013, the 2014 level is also lower than than the 2009 level. The only years with less ice than what we are seeing right now are 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and the disastrous year of 2012. It would take a major event for the 2014 level to fall to the level of any of those years, so it looks like 2014 will go down as having the sixth lowest Arctic sea ice level ever recorded. The minimum should be reached within the week (last year's minimum occurred on September 14th) and we will know for sure.

This is bad news all around. It was certainly hoped that the big rebound that occurred last year might be the start of a trend, but the data doesn't support that. While the hope might have been there, no one studying the Arctic sea ice thought a new trend would occur. The science and the history both indicated last year's extent was nothing more than a fluctuation in the weather and not a recovery.

This, of course, is also bad news for all of the deniers and contrarians out there that have been making claims that global warming isn't real because the sea ice has recovered to the highest level in 35 years/1980 levels/full level/record level, take your pick of the false claim (I have heard all of these and even more).

No, the sea ice extent is not recovering and claims to the contrary are not supported by science. But, isn't that typical for the contrarians? Never let good science get in the way of your claims.

I will be making a more detailed posting on this year's ice (including Antarctica and Greenland) after we hit the minimum extent in the Arctic.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Employer Responsibilities Under the Affordable Care Act; Avoiding the Penalties Under the Public Health Services Act-Your Road Map

Affordable Care Act Employer Responsibility Road-map for Health Plans

Businesses had a reprieve from the Affordable Care Act mandates in 2014, but next year they too will have to meet certain standards for health care plans in the United States and this article provides a road-map for compliance. Most of the information in this column was gleaned from an August seminar sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. Other than one employer representative who felt his employees, or perhaps we should call them serfs, should be thankful to get paid at all, and not receive any work force benefits, most of the seminar participants were working on understanding their compliance responsibilities. To assist in that proposition, here are the crib notes for those who want to be on the fast track for health plan readiness.

Provisions Which Have Are Being Phased in for All Employers with Fifty or More Workers
Public Health Services Act, Section 2708 stipulates that health plans offered by employers with fifty or more employees may have a maximum waiting period of ninety days before an employee is added to the medical plan.
If a self-insured plan fails to comply with the provisions of the Public Health Services Act, highly compensated individuals could lose the tax favored status of their benefits, which means they would have to pay tax on their health plan benefits. If an insured group health plan fails to comply with the provisions of section 105 H of the Public Health Services Act, an excise tax may (most assuredly) be exacted. [1]
Though the Patient Protection and Accountable Care Act mandate to provide medical coverage to employees applies to all firms employing fifty or more employees, the specific benefit design mandates mostly apply to insured plans. However, neither self-insured nor fully insured medical plans may exceed the ninety day waiting period limit, they must cover adult children to age 26, and pre-existing conditions clauses which prevent coverage are not allowed. Minimum health benefits, which are part of the insurance mandates for essential coverage, also apply to self-insured medical plans. If a self-funded plan does not offer a medical plan that meets the minimum for essential health benefits, an excise tax may be demanded, starting in 2015

Safe harbor provisions include foreign employees, or those working in other countries. The PHSA and the ACA applies to employees working within the confines of the United States and its territories.

Mandates which will Commence in 2015
Determining the Number of Eligible Employees
Determining full-time employee equivalents requires an algorithm and here are the steps:
1.       Have you had fifty or more fulltime or fulltime equivalent employees in the prior year? If you have a lot of part-time employees or if you own multiple corporations which are part of a controlled group, you still need to do this analysis.
2.       Determine your fulltime employees, which for purposes of the ACA are those working at least 30 hours a week. The language “on average” is used, but that can be a bit dicey, I suggest using a quarterly look-back.
3.       Next, determine your fulltime equivalent employees, which is defined as anyone who has worked at least twenty hours in a month. The ACA also allows employers to use the 130 hours  per month of work definition to determine fulltime status. Take the number of hours the employees worked in this category and divide it by the number of employees to arrive at your sum.
4.       Determine all other employees, regardless of the hours worked and divide that sum by 120
5.       To assess whether or not your firm is subject to the fifty employees and greater ACA compliance mandates, add the sums of the fulltime employees, the fulltime equivalents, and the sum for the “other employees” criteria. If this total equals or exceeds fifty, you must comply with the federal mandates of the Affordable Care Act. This total also determines which provisions of the Public Health Services Act apply and the various sections of the Internal Revenue Service Code.

How to Avoid an Employer PHSA Shared Responsibility Penalty
The good news is that a modest health plan can still avoid the tax penalties and here are the criteria to meet this hurdle, based on the presentation from Tax Counsel for the Department of the Treasury, Alan Tawshunsky[2].
The health plan must be offered to the fulltime employees, as defined in the previous eligible employee section or the employer will have to pay a tax penalty. The “B” penalty would only apply to employees who opted to purchase insurance through a federal or state insurance exchange (only for those firms with fifty or more eligible employees). To avoid the “A” penalty, which can be up to $3,000 per employee, the health plan must meet the minimum benefit threshold of 60% based on an actuarial formula. The acceptable health plan benefit threshold can be determined two ways, by going to the government Health & Human Services web site and use their calculator[3] or by using one of these methods:

1.       W-2 Method-Determine employee compensation, calculate the maximum insurance or health plan premium contribution made by that employee; if it exceeds 9.5% of that employee’s compensation you probably owe a penalty. If the proportion falls below the 9.5% level you have met the test. The W-2 method is based on earned income reported by the employer.
2.       Look-back Method-This involves taking the employee’s rate-of-pay at the beginning of the year, assume 130 hours of service monthly, and make an assessment using this criteria.
3.       Federal Poverty Method-This rule stipulates that as long as the premium contribution for which the employee is expected to make does not exceed 9.5% of their income, the plan is deemed affordable. Please note, this criteria differs from the insurance exchange standard which is 8% of income. FYI, the federal poverty level for a single individual in the United States in 2014 is $11,670 (more than that if you live in Alaska or Hawaii). For a family of four, it is $23,850. For a family of eight, it is $40,000. Prudence dictates that employers make a calculation for all employees earning less than $24,000, especially if they are single, head-of-household tax filers. The employers will have some access to tax filing status information, because the employees have to complete a W-9 tax filing form when they make changes in their tax filing status or when they are hired.
4.       Once you have determined if your plan meets an acceptable level of employer responsibility you only need to pay a tax penalty for the employees who opt out of the employer plan for the insurance exchange model. Typically these employees will make this selection because they are eligible for the federal tax credits, which apply to all (green card or citizen requirements apply) individuals within 400% of the federal poverty rate.

Measurement Period for Assessing the Eligible Employees and Determining Plan Acceptability
For employers choosing to use the “look-back” period, this can be done annually, semi-annually, or quarterly. It is best not to use a monthly calculation as it takes a month to assess eligibility, especially for new employees, so administrators wouldn’t know who is eligible until the end of the month and insurance plans require enrollment at the beginning of the month.

The government has coined a new phrase, called the stability period, which means once the initial eligibility is determined for employees, there is a period of time where the employees must remain on the plan, if they remain active employees. So if an employer chooses an annual measurement period, eligible employees will be allowed to remain on the plan for 12 months. If an employer opts to check eligibility every three months under the measurement period criteria, then the stability period will only be for three months. This effectively means that an employee’s health plan inclusion status could change every quarter.

Transition Relief for Employers in 2015
During 2015, the employer group can use any six months in a plan year to determine eligibility and it does not have to be six consecutive months. This means the employer could “game the system” if it wanted to put in the effort. Also, medical coverage must be offered to 33% of the workforce and 25% must actually be covered on the plan. In other words, an employer can’t have a sham group health plan. This harkens back to the pre ERISA days when employers set up fabulous pensions for themselves, to the exclusion of their employees, resulting in the “top heavy” rules to prevent discrimination and tax ruses.

In conclusion, the government has determined and the courts have upheld the provision of medical insurance as a requirement and if you are an employer with fifty or more equivalent employees, you must provide medical insurance or a medical plan, contribute an acceptable amount toward the cost of the program, or pay a tax penalty. However, since the cost of a group medical plan is now $4,885 per year just for the employee, employers may elect to pay the $2,000-$3,000 per employee penalty and avoid the employer health plan morass. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s 2013 Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Benefits, family health plan premiums now run $11,786.[4]  This means the employer may also opt to pay a penalty on some classes of employees who fall under the annual shared responsibility rules, but continue to operate a health benefit plan. It is doubtful that many employers with fifty or more employees would cancel a medical benefits program, as this would have a negative impact on recruitment and retention of employees.

For brevity purposes this article has not listed any of the exemption criteria for the Accountable Care Act or Public Health Services Act provisions, but last month’s article addressed religiously exempt plans in detail.

This article was written by Roberta E. Winter, who is a health policy analyst and consultant, independent journalist, and author of Though anyone may use this article, if quoting or reproducing any of the material please make sure that correct attribution of authorship is given. The healthpolicymaven thanks you for reading.

[1]Internal Revenue Service Notice 2011-1 and found online at:
[2]Alan Tawshunsky, Tax Counsel, U.S. Department of the Treasury; Affordable Care Act: Employer Shared Responsibility, Compliance Assistance Seminar, U.S. Department of Labor Health Benefits Education Campaign in coordination with the Washington Office of the Insurance Commissioner, Bothell Washington, August 20, 2014
[3]Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, Fact Sheet, May 16, 2014, and found online at:
[4] Kaiser Family Foundation 2013 Survey of Employer Sponsored Health Benefits and found online at:

Dispelling The "No Consensus" Myth

Skeptical Science invited 97 climate scientists to comment on the contrarian myth that there is no scientific consensus on climate change. One comment will be published every hour for 97 hours. You can read about the effort on the AGU Blogosphere, or you can read the comments here.

This is a noteworthy effort and I hope it will convince some of the people that are on the fence about what they believe. As for the contrarians, as I keep saying, there is no amount of scientific evidence that will ever get them to change their minds. They are, quite literally, out of touch with reality. Too bad.

Tropical Storms in the Southwest

The remnants of Hurricane Norbert hit the Southwestern U.S. this week and caused havoc. Record rainfall in the region caused flooding, closed roads and led to at least two deaths. To really add injury to injury, the flooding is not likely to help with the drought. The system missed the areas hardest hit by the drought and didn't help at all. Even in areas that got rain, the rain came so hard and fast that it ran off rather than soak in. Some, of course, will be caught in the reservoirs and will provide some help, but most will lost.

A tropical storm system hitting this region is very unusual. Just look at the fact that it was not only the single day record rain, but it really shattered the old record. Norbert dumped 3.29 inches on Phoenix on Monday. The old single day record was 2.91 inches and was 81-years old. The new record is more than 13% higher than the old one. (There was also a 4.98 inch rainfall in 1911 that occurred over two days, but within a 24-hour period, making it the 24-hour record holder.) What isn't revealed in that statistic is that the 3.29 inches fell in just seven hours. You don't see this kind of record history very often in places that get tropical storms on a regular basis.

According to Wikipedia, there have been four tropical storms that have hit the Southwester U.S. with gale force winds since 1900. Norbert was not the fifth. Storm organization had degraded quickly when the storm hit Mexico and wind speeds dropped precipitously.

So, why do so few storms hit this region? After all, there are lots of Pacific storms that form in this region and tropical cyclones in the Northern Hemisphere tend to hook towards the Northeast. You would think this would create a situation conducive for West Coast storm strikes.

The answer lies in the ocean temperature. The California Current along the West Coast originates in the north and moves southwards along the continental margin.  Take a look at this plot from Climate Reanalyzer showing the ocean temperature for September 11, 2014:

Source: Climate Reanalyzer
The light blue band along the coast line clearly shows how the waters in this region are cooler than ocean waters farther out to sea (to the left, or west). There are two things that are needed for tropical cyclone development: warm ocean water and a lack of high-altitude wind shear. As it turns out, the California Current not only cools the water, it also leads to high-altitude wind shear. Storms that form and move into this region run right into a hurricane killer. The U.S. West Coast has it very own hurricane-barrier.

But, what is going to happen as the ocean gets warmer as a result of climate change? We don't need to speculate, we can look at the record and we can see what is already happening.

While Norbert didn't bring gale force winds, it did fall in the category of tropical storm remnant affecting the Southwest. Again, according to Wikipedia (not a research quality source, but adequate for our purpose here), there have been 67 storms (not including Norbert) that are recorded to have had an impact on California.
Number of recorded storms impacting California
PeriodNumber of storms
Adding Norbert, this list indicates that there have been 39 of the 68 storms since the beginning of the 1970s, over 57% of all of the storms on this list. Why did I use that time span? Take a look at this graph for the answer:

Global Ocean Heat Content 1955-present 0-700 m
Source: NOAA

This graph shows the ocean temperature started a significant increase in the late-1960s. Remember, tropical storms need warm water. We would expect, if all things remain equal (a bad assumption, but a good starting point) that the California hurricane barrier would start to break down and that is what the data seems to be indicating.

Take a look at this plot, also from Climate Reanalyzer:

Source: Climate Reanalyzer

This plot shows the temperature anomaly for September 11, 2014, the same day as the other ocean temperature plot. The difference between the two is the first plot showed the actual water temperature and this one shows the difference between the actual temperature and the average temperature. Just as the above plot clearly showed the California Current to provide cooler waters along the West Coast, this one shows, equally clearly, that the waters along the West Coast are getting warmer. Quite a bit so, in fact.

Does this mean California and the Southwest can expect more tropical storm remnants? I believe the data shows that is already happening. Does this mean there is a possible relief for the long-term drought? Again, I believe the data already shows this is not the case. Droughts are relieved, and caused, by long-term changes in the precipitation pattern. Flash floods with large amounts of runoff are not going to provide the relief needed. That will take long, soaking rains and heavy snowfall in the mountains. In fact, there is evidence the warming oceans is what is actually causing the drought.

The conclusion I reach from this is that this region is already experiencing severe effects from global warming and will continue to see them into the future.