Biodiversity changes are lagging behind current climate warming. The underlying determinants of this climatic debt are unknown and yet critical to understand the impacts of climate change on the present biota and improve forecasts of biodiversity changes. Here we assess determinants of climatic debt accumulated in French forest herbaceous plant communities between 1987 and 2008 (that is, a 1.05 °C mean difference between the observed and bioindicated temperatures). We show that warmer baseline conditions predispose plant communities to larger climatic debts, and that climate warming exacerbates this response. Forest plant communities, however, are absorbing part of the temperature increase mainly through the species' ability to tolerate changing climate. As climate warming is expected to accelerate during the twenty-first century, plant migration and tolerance to climatic stresses probably will be insufficient to absorb this impact posing threats to the sustainability of forest plant communities.
Many species show a time-lagged response to climate change, a phenomenon called climatic debt. Here, Bertrand and colleagues show that climate severity and plant tolerance to climate warming mainly influence the climatic debt of forest herbaceous plant communities.