The current distribution of species, environmental conditions and their interactions represent only one snapshot of a planet that is continuously changing, in part due to human influences. To distinguish human impacts from natural factors, the magnitude and pace of climate shifts, since the Last Glacial Maximum, are often used to determine whether patterns of diversity today are artefacts of past climate change. In the absence of high-temporal resolution palaeoclimate reconstructions, this is generally done by assuming that past climate change occurred at a linear pace between widely spaced (usually, ≥1,000 years) climate snapshots. We show here that this is a flawed assumption because regional climates have changed significantly across decades and centuries during glacial–interglacial cycles, likely causing rapid regional replacement of biota. We demonstrate how recent atmosphere-ocean general circulation model (AOGCM) simulations of the climate of the past 21,000 years can provide credible estimates of the details of climate change on decadal to centennial timescales, showing that these details differ radically from what might be inferred from longer timescale information. High-temporal resolution information can provide more meaningful estimates of the magnitude and pace of climate shifts, the location and timing of drivers of physiological stress, and the extent of novel climates. They also produce new opportunities to directly investigate whether short-term climate variability is more important in shaping biodiversity patterns rather than gradual changes in long-term climatic means. Together, these more accurate measures of past climate instability are likely to bring about a better understanding of the role of palaeoclimatic change and variability in shaping current macroecological patterns in many regions of the world.