What is adaptation to climate change? Epistemic ambiguity in the climate finance system


Over the past decade developed states have committed significant public financing for climate change adaptation. Much of this public financing flows through international development organizations. States have delegated the implementation and monitoring of adaptation to existing international organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Scholars have noted that states delegate discretion to specialized organizations to perform a task on their behalf, but have not explored how uncertainties about the nature of the task affect delegation. This article addresses this gap by distinguishing the concept of epistemic ambiguity (when states are uncertain about the exact nature of a task) from strategic ambiguity (when states do not reach consensus over a task due to political differences) in order to address the question: how have states and international organizations defined and implemented adaptation activities? The question is answered through case studies of: (1) adaptation projects administered by the United Nations Development Programme and the International Organization for Migration in Kenya; and (2) states’ and international organizations’ attempts to develop methodologies for reporting adaptation financing. The case studies are based on: primary documents published by states and international organizations, secondary literature on climate finance, and interviews with adaptation experts. This article argues that states have not precisely defined adaptation, and that this is substantially due to epistemic ambiguity. It then identifies two consequences of epistemic ambiguity: a proliferation of activities labelled as adaptation, and difficulties tracking and monitoring adaptation assistance.

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  1. 1.

    All monetary values in this article are in US dollars unless otherwise specified.

  2. 2.

    UNEP estimates the costs to be between $70 and $100 billion per annum by 2050; and the World Bank projects costs of up to $100 billion per annum by 2040–2049.

  3. 3.

    Other scholars have described a similar distinction between structured and unstructured problems. Structured problems have a high degree of consensus (over the relevant norms and values) and certainty (over the relevant knowledge), whereas unstructured problems have neither consensus nor certainty (Hisschemöller and Hoppe 1995: 44). Problem structuring theories have been applied to many policy-making contexts but have not been integrated into principal-agent theories of delegation. Thanks to Joyeeta Gupta for this insight.

  4. 4.

    Carl Hempel used the term to discuss an ambiguity inherent to inductive explanation (Ruben 1990).

  5. 5.

    Thanks to Erin Graham for this insight.

  6. 6.

    Thanks to Jonathan Pickering for this point.

  7. 7.

    Rajamani (2016: 506) has also commented on ambiguities in the Paris Agreement.

  8. 8.

    I focus on assistance from developed to developing countries, not on financing within national budgets.

  9. 9.

    The IPCC also notes that various “types of adaptation can be distinguished, including anticipatory and reactive adaptation, private and public adaptation, and autonomous and planned adaptation” (IPCC 2001: 982).

  10. 10.

    Note some of the contentious categories of mitigation finance are discussed in Delina, this issue, and the special issue Editorial.

  11. 11.

    Author’s interviews with UNDP, World Food Programme, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, IOM and UNEP officials in Kenya, April 2011.

  12. 12.

    Interview with Kenyan climate change secretariat official, 31 March 2011, Nairobi.

  13. 13.

    Telephone interview with UNDP official, 25 March 2011.

  14. 14.

    Interview with IOM official, 6 April 2011, Kakuma.

  15. 15.


  16. 16.


  17. 17.


  18. 18.


  19. 19.

    The Rio markers also cover biodiversity and desertification. For further detail on the Rio markers, see Betzold and Weiler, this issue.

  20. 20.

    Thanks to Jonathan Pickering for this insight.

  21. 21.

    The MDBs include five regional development banks, the International Finance Corporation, and the World Bank.



African Development Bank


Conference of the Parties


Global Environment Facility


International Development Finance Club


International Organization for Migration


Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


Least Developed Countries Fund


Multilateral development banks


Non-governmental organization


Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development


Pilot Programme for Climate Resilience


Special Climate Change Fund


United Nations


United Nations Development Programme


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


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Thanks to Catherine Weaver for significant input into earlier iterations of this article. Thanks also to Erin Graham, Susanna Campbell, Joyeeta Gupta, and the three editors of this special issue (Carola Betzold, Jonathan Pickering and Jakob Skovgaard) for their constructive comments.

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Hall, N. What is adaptation to climate change? Epistemic ambiguity in the climate finance system. Int Environ Agreements 17, 37–53 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10784-016-9345-6

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  • Climate finance
  • Adaptation
  • Ambiguity
  • Principal-agent theory
  • Delegation