The twenty-first century is likely to be characterised by large changes in regional climatic and environmental conditions, with implications for the availability and distribution of key resources such as water and productive land. While the implications of such changes for human societies are potentially profound, the empirical evidence base for understanding human–environment interactions focuses largely on the relatively recent past, during which examples of rapid and severe climate change are lacking. While there are no precise past analogues for twenty-first century climate change, the Middle Holocene Climatic Transition (MHCT), from about 6400–5000 years before present, provides us with an example of a period of large-scale global climatic reorganisation, punctuated by episodes of rapid and severe climate change, at a time when human societies were beginning to resemble those of today. A survey of archaeological and palaeo-environmental data from the northern hemisphere subtropics and other regions provides us with evidence for linked climatic, environmental and societal change during the MHCT. This evidence, the strength of which varies with location, allows us to construct convincing narratives of linked climatic, environmental and societal changes that accommodate a variety of responses and outcomes, and that are much more nuanced than narratives of the proposed climate-induced collapse of individual societies. Such synthetic studies that compare contexts across time and space can help us understand human–environment interactions during times of climatic disruption, while allowing for diverse outcomes and avoiding the pitfalls of climatic determinism.