The distribution and abundance of birds is known to depend critically upon climate variability at a range of temporal and spatial scales. In this paper we review historical changes in climate in the context of what is known about climate variability over the last millennium, with particular reference to the British Isles. The climate of Britain is now warmer than it has been in at least 340 years, with the 1990s decade 0.5 °C warmer than the 1961–1990 average. In addition, the frequency of cold days (mean temperature below 0 °C), particularly during March and November, has declined and there has been a marked shift in the seasonality of precipitation, with winters becoming substantially wetter and summers becoming slightly drier. Current understanding is that the rate of future warming is likely to accelerate with more frequent and more intense summer heatwaves, milder winters, an increase in winter rainfall, an increased risk of winter river floods, and an increase in mean sea-level and associated coastal flooding. All of these aspects of climate change are likely to impact on coastal birds. A range of potential future climate scenarios for the British Isles are presented derived from recently completed global climate model experiments. For migrant bird species, changes in the British climate have also to be seen within the context of remote climate change in both the breeding and the overwintering grounds.