To evaluate how climate change might impact a competitively dominant ecological engineer, we analysed the growth response of the mussel Mytilus californianus to climate patterns [El Niño-Southern Oscillation, Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO)]. Mussels grew faster during warmer climatic events. Growth was initially faster on a more productive cape compared to a less productive cape. Growth rates at the two capes merged in 2002, coincidentally with a several year-long shift from warm to cool PDO conditions. To determine the mechanism underlying this response, we examined growth responses to intertidal sea and air temperatures, phytoplankton, sea level and tide height. Together, water temperature (32%) and food (12.5%) explained 44.5% of the variance in mussel growth; contributions of other factors were not significant. In turn, water temperature and food respond to climate-driven variation in upwelling and other, unknown factors. Understanding responses of ecosystem engineers to climate change will require knowing direct thermal effects and indirect effects of factors altered by temperature change.