Reference evapotranspiration (RET), an indicator of atmospheric evaporating capability over a hypothetical reference surface, was calculated using the Penman-Monteith method for 75 stations across the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau between 1971 and 2004. Generally, both annual and seasonal RET decreased for most part of the plateau during the study period. Multivariate linear models were used to determine the contributions of climate factors to RET change, including air temperature, air humidity, solar radiation, and wind speed. Spatial differences in the causes of RET change were detected by K-means clustering analysis. It indicates that wind speed predominated the changes of RET almost throughout the year, especially in the north of the study region, whereas radiation was the leading factor in the southeast, especially during the summertime. Although the recent warming trend over the plateau would have increased RET, the combined effect of the reduced wind speed and shortened sunshine duration negated the effect of rising temperature and caused RET to decrease in general. The significant decrease in surface wind speed corresponded to the decreasing trends of upper-air zonal wind and the decline of pressure gradient, possibly as a result of the recent warming.