Shifts in species' distribution and abundance in response to climate change have been well documented, but the underpinning processes are still poorly understood. We present the results of a systematic literature review and meta-analysis investigating the frequency and importance of different mechanisms by which climate has impacted natural populations. Most studies were from temperate latitudes of North America and Europe; almost half investigated bird populations. We found significantly greater support for indirect, biotic mechanisms than direct, abiotic mechanisms as mediators of the impact of climate on populations. In addition, biotic effects tended to have greater support than abiotic factors in studies of species from higher trophic levels. For primary consumers, the impact of climate was equally mediated by biotic and abiotic mechanisms, whereas for higher level consumers the mechanisms were most frequently biotic, such as predation or food availability. Biotic mechanisms were more frequently supported in studies that reported a directional trend in climate than in studies with no such climatic change, although sample sizes for this comparison were small. We call for more mechanistic studies of climate change impacts on populations, particularly in tropical systems.