Climate change impacts and responses are presently observed in physical and ecological systems. Adaptation to these impacts is increasingly being observed in both physical and ecological systems as well as in human adjustments to resource availability and risk at different spatial and societal scales. We review the nature of adaptation and the implications of different spatial scales for these processes. We outline a set of normative evaluative criteria for judging the success of adaptations at different scales. We argue that elements of effectiveness, efficiency, equity and legitimacy are important in judging success in terms of the sustainability of development pathways into an uncertain future. We further argue that each of these elements of decision-making is implicit within presently formulated scenarios of socio-economic futures of both emission trajectories and adaptation, though with different weighting. The process by which adaptations are to be judged at different scales will involve new and challenging institutional processes.