Environmental science primer for consultants

In 2007, I prepared a management consultant with no prior environmental science knowledge for an exciting career change into environmental policy.  I created these 30 study questions to cover broad literacy across the most pressing contemporary environmental issues:

  • Climate change
  • Recycling
  • Biodiversity
  • Toxins
  • Electric power generation
  • Nuclear waste
  • Wastewater treatment
  • Oil and gas drilling
  • Food safety
  • Motor vehicles
  • Farm policy
  • Fisheries
  • Water supply
  • Urban sprawl
  • Air pollution regulation

“Environmental Science 301”

Possible final exam questions

1. What are the consequences of loss of biodiversity? Pick a recently-extinct plant or animal species and explain the impact of its absence on the ecosystem. How many species do we lose every year? What part of the earth is most severely affected by this issue at present?
2. Which is the “best” electricity generation source, and why? What could arguments against your choice be?
3. Should we drill for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge? How much oil do we believe is there? Characterize the economic benefits of drilling in terms of days of oil provided, reduction in per barrel prices on the world market, and shift in the US domestic vs foreign oil sourcing mix? What would be the environmental impacts of drilling?
4. What are the primary types of nuclear reactors? Which types are in use in which parts of the world? Does France have cheap electricity – why or why not?
5. What is generally considered to be the “worst” toxin? Explain what factors drove your choice, and list a few alternative toxins that you didn’t choose. Explain its anthropogenic source, how it travels through the ecosystem, its level of persistence, and what alternatives we have for eliminating it from our environment.
6. Name 7 foods which either the FDA or environmental/consumer advocacy groups advise against due to toxicity levels. In each case, state whether you eat these foods, and how you personally view the risk tradeoff involved in that decision.
7. Explain the biological mechanism of cancer formation in humans due to environmental influences. List the names and primary source of as many of the major known carcinogenic pollutants as you can. What proportion of each of the major cancer types cannot be fully explained by genetic or lifestyle factors?
8. Do you support the growing of genetically-modified or genetically-engineered foods? Why or why not?
9. Explain the notion of a “sick building”? What are the major potential sources for toxins and air pollutants in your own home?
10. Why haven’t we placed any nuclear waste inside Yucca Mountain yet? Where is it currently stored? Which states have the biggest stake in our decision on how to handle nuclear waste? Which ones have the biggest stake in a decision to start building nuclear plants again?
11. Does choosing to buy shade-grown coffee offer a substantial environmental benefit? Why or why not?
12. Under what circumstances should biomass power generation “count” as renewable?
13. List all major theoretical alternatives for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in descending rank-order of feasibility (as currently understood). Estimate the cost impact of implementing the number one idea, in terms of US household electricity bills.
14. Is Bush’s support for hydrogen-powered cars merely a means to deflect attention from his poor environmental record? In your opinion, is funding this technology the most efficient way to reduce mobile-source carbon emissions?
15. What types of governmental subsidies contribute to overfishing of the seas?
16. Briefly outline the major critiques of the most recent US Farm Bill.
17. Calculate an approximate carbon dioxide emission amount per kWh of electricity generated from each of the following sources: PV, solar thermal, wind, biomass, coal, clean coal, gas steam, gas CC, gas peaker, oil peaker, oil steam, nuclear, geothermal, big hydro, run-of-river hydro, pumped storage, landfill gas, stationary bicycle riding. Also show estimates that take lifecycle impacts into account, where possible.
18. Where is the closest known or suspected cancer cluster to your home? How compelling do you find the statistical evidence for it?
19. Explain the economic and environmental impact, if any, of recycling plastic bottles. Why do some communities have recycling programs and others not? Where do the recycled bottles go and what becomes of them?
20. Briefly outline the major components of the Kyoto treaty on climate change, and what, if any, the impacts of it have been to date among signatory nations.
21. Briefly outline the major carbon-control initiatives to date within the US. Include state or regional legislation, company voluntary actions, federal programs in development, etc.
22. How severe do you think freshwater depletion is as a global environmental problem, compared to other major problems like climate change, air pollution, toxins, and biodiversity loss? How much do you personally pay per gallon of fresh water in your home? In your estimation, how much might one gallon cost if its scarcity were fully monetized?
23. Why are electric cars better than regular cars, if the electricity still has to be generated by a power plant? How much net benefit (on any dimension you choose to evaluate) do electric cars provide?
24. Identify 4 recent suspected examples of climate change. Include at least one example of a cooling effect.
25. Why is there more urban and suburban sprawl in the US than in Europe? List at least 3 distinct reasons why it is difficult to contain? What has a city like Portland, Oregon, done differently such that it has managed to contain sprawl?
26. Would you vote against a proposed waste-to-energy plant (i.e., incinerator) to be built near your home? Why or why not? How common are incinerators in the US, and where are they generally located?
27. Explain how residential and industrial wastewater is currently treated. Which 5 industries have the most polluted wastewater streams? How is each one managed in the US, and how well?
28. What pay-to-pollute systems exist in the US and elsewhere in the world, with respect to air pollution? Draw a timeline of the history of SOx and NOx emissions trading in the US and assess the performance of these programs.
29. Why is it important for us to have public parks (e.g., national parks, state parks)?
30. Explain how climate change models work.
a. Who maintains the most well-known climate models?
b. How do theoretical models of climate change vary? What are key areas of consensus and uncertainty?
c. Are there any legitimate criticisms of them?
d. What is the range of their predictions?
e. Conceptualize and explain how you might build a highly simplified “screening model” yourself.

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