Natural resource-dependent societies in developing countries are facing increased pressures linked to global climate change. While social-ecological systems evolve to accommodate variability, there is growing evidence that changes in drought, storm and flood extremes are increasing exposure of currently vulnerable populations. In many countries in Africa, these pressures are compounded by disruption to institutions and variability in livelihoods and income. The interactions of both rapid and slow onset livelihood disturbance contribute to enduring poverty and slow processes of rural livelihood renewal across a complex landscape. We explore cross-scale dynamics in coping and adaptation response, drawing on qualitative data from a case study in Mozambique. The research characterises the engagements across multiple institutional scales and the types of agents involved, providing insight into emergent conditions for adaptation to climate change in rural economies. The analysis explores local responses to climate shocks, food security and poverty reduction, through informal institutions, forms of livelihood diversification and collective land-use systems that allow reciprocity, flexibility and the ability to buffer shocks. However, the analysis shows that agricultural initiatives have helped to facilitate effective livelihood renewal, through the reorganisation of social institutions and opportunities for communication, innovation and micro-credit. Although there are challenges to mainstreaming adaptation at different scales, this research shows why it is critical to assess how policies can protect conditions for emergence of livelihood transformation.