Modelling simulations of palaeoclimate and past vegetation form and function can contribute to global change research by constraining predictions of potential earth system responses to future warming, and by providing useful insights into the ecophysiological tolerances and threshold responses of plants to varying degrees of atmospheric change. We contrasted HadCM3LC simulations of Amazonian forest at the last glacial maximum (LGM; 21 kyr ago) and a Younger Dryas–like period (13–12 kyr ago) with predicted responses of future warming to provide estimates of the climatic limits under which the Amazon forest remains relatively stable. Our simulations indicate that despite lower atmospheric CO2 concentrations and increased aridity during the LGM, Amazonia remains mostly forested, and that the cooling climate of the Younger Dryas–like period in fact causes a trend toward increased above–ground carbon balance relative to today. The vegetation feedbacks responsible for maintaining forest integrity in past climates (i.e. decreased evapotranspiration and reduced plant respiration) cannot be maintained into the future. Although elevated atmospheric CO2 contributes to a positive enhancement of plant carbon and water balance, decreased stomatal conductance and increased plant and soil respiration cause a positive feedback that amplifies localized drying and climate warming. We speculate that the Amazonian forest is currently near its critical resiliency threshold, and that even minor climate warming may be sufficient to promote deleterious feedbacks on forest integrity.