Recent observations of widespread changes in mature tropical forests such as increasing tree growth, recruitment and mortality rates and increasing above–ground biomass suggest that ‘global change’ agents may be causing predictable changes in tropical forests. However, consensus over both the robustness of these changes and the environmental drivers that may be causing them is yet to emerge. This paper focuses on the second part of this debate. We review (i) the evidence that the physical, chemical and biological environment that tropical trees grow in has been altered over recent decades across large areas of the tropics, and (ii) the theoretical, experimental and observational evidence regarding the most likely effects of each of these changes on tropical forests. Ten potential widespread drivers of environmental change were identified: temperature, precipitation, solar radiation, climatic extremes (including El Niño Southern Oscillation events), atmospheric CO2 concentrations, nutrient deposition, O3/acid depositions, hunting, land–use change and increasing liana numbers. We note that each of these environmental changes is expected to leave a unique ‘fingerprint’ in tropical forests, as drivers directly force different processes, have different distributions in space and time and may affect some forests more than others (e.g. depending on soil fertility). Thus, in the third part of the paper we present testable a priori predictions of forest responses to assist ecologists in attributing particular changes in forests to particular causes across multiple datasets. Finally, we discuss how these drivers may change in the future and the possible consequences for tropical forests.