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

Original Paper


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.


Climate finance Adaptation Ambiguity Principal-agent theory Delegation 



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



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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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hertie School of GovernanceBerlinGermany

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