© 2015 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved. Human domination of the biosphere includes changes to disturbance regimes, which push many ecosystems towards early-successional states. Ecological theory predicts that early-successional ecosystems are more sensitive to perturbations than mature systems, but little evidence supports this relationship for the perturbation of climate change. Here we show that vegetation (abundance, species richness and species composition) across seven European shrublands is quite resistant to moderate experimental warming and drought, and responsiveness is associated with the dynamic state of the ecosystem, with recently disturbed sites responding to treatments. Furthermore, most of these responses are not rapid (2-5 years) but emerge over a longer term (7-14 years). These results suggest that successional state influences the sensitivity of ecosystems to climate change, and that ecosystems recovering from disturbances may be sensitive to even modest climatic changes. A research bias towards undisturbed ecosystems might thus lead to an underestimation of the impacts of climate change.