Setting expectations is part of politics. Successful politicians exceed expectations, and unsuccessful ones don’t live up to them. When it comes to world climate summits, like the one last year in Copenhagen, and this year’s meeting in Cancun, expectation levels can offer daunting challenges or easy hurdles to clear.

This year, it will be hard for the COP16 summit to fail to meet expectations. Expectations are so low, they are almost subterranean. This is a stark difference from the sky-high hopes of the COP15 meetings in Copenhagen a year ago.

Last year, when I arrived in Kongnens Nytorv, the heart of downtown Copenhagen, I remember seeing loud rallies, demonstrations and a giant illuminated sign that read “bend the trend,” which was an advertisement asking leaders to work to reducing the upward trend of carbon emissions in our atmosphere. In the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen meetings, everyone I told about the trip knew what it was about, and expressed sincere interest in the event. Many of my colleagues in the climate world were optimistic that some sort Kyoto-like agreement would be hashed out and that a newly elected American president would help do the hashing and would bring a treaty home to be ratified by Congress. This year couldn’t be more different.

“Cancun?” people ask. They follow that question in one of three ways. The most common retort is a snide remark about spring break and how I am too old for that sort of thing. (I generally object to anyone saying I’m “too old” for anything.) The second retort is generally, “Don’t drink the water." And the third and least common retort is “Oh yeah, there’s a climate conference this year.” As I walked off the plane at the Cancun airport with short sleeves and sandals, my first thought was something out of “The Wizard of Oz.” I thought, “we are not in Copenhagen anymore.”

But this may not be a bad thing. Well, the water may be a bad thing, and me being too old for a spring break is a bad thing, but low expectations are easier to exceed and that is a good thing. In fact, expectations are so low, if anything is accomplished in Cancun, it may end up seeming infinitely more successful than Copenhagen.

Some are saying this is a year when progress will be made on deforestation policy. Others are saying it may be a year when some agreement is reached on financing recovery programs in poor nations that are hurt by climate change. No one is saying that the agreements reached over the next few days will be earth-shattering, and everything that is being said is done so with qualifiers and extreme caution. This is the world we live in. A world where big things are out of reach and small things are suddenly big things.

So it’s not really about major success here in Cancun; it’s about how success is measured. It’s a matter of perspective. For those who want to see major progress on policy, this will not be a successful two weeks. For those who want to see some progress, this may be somewhat successful. And for those who are expecting to get sick from the water and not see a lick of progress here, well this may be the most successful climate summit of all time.

Related on MNN: More stories from the Cancun summit

Playing the expectation game at the Cancun summit
Success at COP16 is all about how you measure it. The lower the expectations, the higher the chances this conference will be a success.