Paris isn’t Las Vegas. And what happens in Paris doesn’t stay in Paris. Which in most cases is a good thing.

What happens in Paris courses, flows, cascades across much of the rest of the world: generally, though not always, for the betterment. Paris gives and Paris receives, and it never stops doing both.

COP 21 logo and Paris photo

Which brings us to the current news surrounding not just the City of Light’s recovery from the horrid terrorism of the past few weeks, but in this instance involving the meeting of top climate world leaders and others in what could be a historic and game-changing summit. It’s important to point out that among those rightly known for being climate-concerned, climate-aware, and climate-savvy, there is ample and justified anxiety that the meeting may not measure-up to the daunting challenges the climate problem poses (see here, here and here).

The hurdles to a truly “successful” and historically meaningful Paris meeting are real and deep. They are perhaps first and foremost political, but they are also economic, technological, sociological, geographical, institutional, and, last but not least, in some cases contrived for the purpose of preventing the very success that the science demands and the public worldwide by and large supports.

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The meeting to some extent may be the victim of the high expectations many hold for it, though unrealistically. After many-a-failure-and-disappointment around global climate summits, more than a few serious thinkers and close observers are yet hopeful this one will be markedly “different.” And it may indeed turn out to be. Ergo the high expectations.

Some pre-meeting Paris ‘successes’

From one measure – but surely not that of soon dramatically altering continued high carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas concentrations – the Paris meeting may already have chalked-up some gains. Even before getting under way.

Think of it this way: Pope Francis’s truly historic pontifical this past summer. Would it have occurred as and when it did, in the absence of the planned Paris meeting? Would it have had the same global and lasting impact?

What about the amount of increased global attention, and the resulting increased public awareness, of climate change? Isn’t that too properly seen as a notch on the belt of the Paris meeting?

And too the elevation of the issue, at least to some extent, as a discussion item in the early presidential primary campaign season? Maybe even the promulgation of the federal Clean Power Plan, the downward trajectory of untamed coal combustion, growing interest in and commitment to and lower prices for renewables, the increased mileage car purchasers have come to demand, and even the rejection of the XL pipeline?

Does anyone seriously think those would have occurred in a vacuum not in the least influenced by the coming, and now arrived, Paris meeting?

None of which is to suggest, by the way, a strong likelihood that the near-term push for a more stable and more benign global climate will immediately and markedly benefit from the Paris talks. Far from it.

The actual success of these talks alas may be unknown and unknowable for years or decades, as how the climate and CO2 concentrations ultimately stabilize or decline – or, yes, continue to increase – will be the final arbiter. (That’s a point long-time journalist and book author Eugene Linden makes clear in a companion posting.) It’s a judgment we’ll have to await.

Meeting sets floor, not ceiling of global ambitions

In terms of how and whether the Paris meeting will be seen as a “success” in the near term, it’s important to keep in mind U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s reminder that the Paris meeting “is not the end,” although it hardly can be seen as “the beginning” given all the previous international climate meetings. Paris “must mark the floor, not the ceiling, of our ambition,” he said. “It must be a turning point towards a low-emission, climate-resilient future.”

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Amidst all the prognosticating, crystal-balling, and punditry leading up to the COP-21 meeting, perhaps one particularly helpful comment came from analyst Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Key: Paris Seen as ‘success’ or as ‘failure’?

“In a sense, the biggest indicator of ‘success’ in Paris is it being seen as a success,” Levi has written, “and the biggest sign of ‘failure’ is if Paris is seen as a failure,” as was, for instance, the Copenhagen meeting. A perhaps sobering thought from Levi given the troubled state of the news media in the U.S. and many foreign countries: “This means that the global media will play an unusually important role in shaping the Paris outcome.”

“If Paris is measured against whether it saves the world, or at least deals with the climate problem once and for all, it will inevitably be judged a failure, since no summit or international agreement can do that,” Levi wrote. “If it is assessed more realistically, though, it has a fair and deserved shot at being labeled a success.”

Among the factors that could warrant the “success” label are;

— that that the meeting do nothing to undercut the substantial momentum for climate action that has developed across numerous countries and across a broad spectrum of American society, including from major interests in the business sector;

— that the meeting foster a global commitment to realistic but meaningful reporting requirements in coming years and a commitment also to transparency;

— that it provide for regular and periodic reconvening of the world’s largest emitters so carbon-emission reduction accomplishments can be assessed in the context of the most current scientific evidence . . . and revised if needed; and

— that it not be judged primarily as a failure for its not producing a ratification-demanding “treaty,” but rather as a success if it leads to a growing global commitment among developed countries to slow growing temperature rise and to adequately finance adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Paris won’t satisfy the short-term desires and needs to limit warming to no more than two degrees C. And it won’t reduce CO2 concentrations to a 350-, 400-, or even 450-ppm concentration. But it can still end up easing the transition to a low-carbon global economy. That in itself will be one more constructive effort in what inevitably will be a decades-long undertaking.

The theatrics and the atmospherics, no pun, surrounding the lead-up to Paris, the actual event, and its aftermath – and the global media’s coverage of it and their audiences’ resulting impressions – will matter, and do matter.

After weeks of suffering the aftermath of its second major terrorism attack of 2015, Paris has an opportunity to end the year on a high note. What happens there won’t stay there, and we can hope the results will provide justification for the enthusiasm and optimism that has built-up in the months preceding the meeting itself.

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...