The Mars Science Laboratory mission aims to land a car-sized rover on Mars' surface and operate it for at least one Mars year in order to assess whether its field area was ever capable of supporting microbial life. Here we describe the approach used to identify, characterize, and assess environmental risks to the landing and rover surface operations. Novel entry, descent, and landing approaches will be used to accurately deliver the 900-kg rover, including the ability to sense and "fly out" deviations from a best-estimate atmospheric state. A joint engineering and science team developed methods to estimate the range of potential atmospheric states at the time of arrival and to quantitatively assess the spacecraft's performance and risk given its particular sensitivities to atmospheric conditions. Numerical models are used to calculate the atmospheric parameters, with observations used to define model cases, tune model parameters, and validate results. This joint program has resulted in a spacecraft capable of accessing, with minimal risk, the four finalist sites chosen for their scientific merit. The capability to operate the landed rover over the latitude range of candidate landing sites, and for all seasons, was verified against an analysis of surface environmental conditions described here. These results, from orbital and model data sets, also drive engineering simulations of the rover's thermal state that are used to plan surface operations.