Climate change creates a double inequality through the inverse distribution of risk and responsibility. Developed states are responsible, but are forecast to confront only moderate adverse effects; least developed states are not culpable and yet experience significant threats to livelihoods, assets and security. Adaptation finance addresses inequity by developed states facilitating/funding behaviour adjustments necessary for exposed communities to lessen climate risk. This article investigates the ground-level effectiveness of adaptation finance in climate vulnerable villages across Malawi, while controlling for disparities in vulnerability. Malawi and selected districts are both climate vulnerable and significant recipients of adaptation finance. This concludes a larger top–down multi-scalar analysis of climate justice, which applies the distribution and effectiveness of adaptation finance as a proxy. The study avails of participatory assessments to compare actions of villages receiving adaptation finance with those engaging in autonomous and informal adaptations. Adaptation finance villages: (a) address more climate related risks; and (b) enhance agency, security and sustainably lessen climate vulnerability. Conversely, informal practice villages attend to a lower proportion of climate risks and often develop short-term strategies with less enduring vulnerability reduction. Vulnerable communities receiving adaptation finance do change behaviours to reduce climate risk and thus secure local level climate justice.