Different components of global environmental change are often studied and managed independently, but mounting evidence points towards complex non-additive interaction effects between drivers of native species decline. Using the example of interactions between land-use change and biotic exchange, we develop an interpretive framework that will enable global change researchers to identify and discriminate between major interaction pathways. We formalise a distinction between numerically mediated versus functionally moderated causal pathways. Despite superficial similarity of their effects, numerical and functional pathways stem from fundamentally different mechanisms of action and have fundamentally different consequences for conservation management. Our framework is a first step toward building a better quantitative understanding of how interactions between drivers might mitigate or exacerbate the net effects of global environmental change on biotic communities in the future.