The usefulness of global-average diurnal temperature range (DTR) as an index of climate change and variability is evaluated using observations and climate model simulations representing unforced climate variability and anthropogenic climate change. On decadal timescales, modelled and observed intrinsic variability of DTR compare well and are independent of variations in global mean temperature. Observed reductions in DTR over the last century are large and unlikely to be due to natural variability alone. Comparison of observed and anthropogenic-forced model changes in DTR over the last 50 years show much less reduction in DTR in the model simulations due to greater warming of maximum temperatures in the models than observed. This difference is likely attributed to increases in cloud cover that are observed over the same period and are absent in model simulations.