Statistical species distribution models (SDMs) are widely used to predict the potential changes in species distributions under climate change scenarios. We suggest that we need to revisit the conceptual framework and ecological assumptions on which the relationship between species distributions and environment is based. We present a simple conceptual framework to examine the selection of environmental predictors and data resolution scales. These vary widely in recent papers, with light inconsistently included in the models. Focusing on light as a necessary component of plant SDMs, we briefly review its dependence on aspect and slope and existing knowledge of its influence on plant distribution. Differences in light regimes between north- and south-facing aspects in temperate latitudes can produce differences in temperature equivalent to moves 200 km polewards. Local topography may create refugia that are not recognized in many climate change SDMs using coarse-scale data. We argue that current assumptions about the selection of predictors and data resolution need further testing. Application of these ideas can clarify many issues of scale, extent and choice of predictors, and potentially improve the use of SDMs for climate change modelling of biodiversity.