The interaction of gradual climate trends and extreme weather events since the turn of the century has triggered complex and, in some cases, catastrophic ecological responses around the world. We illustrate this using Australian examples within a press-pulse framework. Despite the Australian biota being adapted to high natural climate variability, recent combinations of climatic presses and pulses have led to population collapses, loss of relictual communities and shifts into novel ecosystems. These changes have been sudden and unpredictable, and may represent permanent transitions to new ecosystem states without adaptive management interventions. The press-pulse framework helps illuminate biological responses to climate change, grounds debate about suitable management interventions and highlights possible consequences of (non-) intervention.