Riparian ecosystems in the 21st century are likely to play a critical role in determining the vulnerability of natural and human systems to climate change, and in influencing the capacity of these systems to adapt. Some authors have suggested that riparian ecosystems are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts due to their high levels of exposure and sensitivity to climatic stimuli, and their history of degradation. Others have highlighted the probable resilience of riparian ecosystems to climate change as a result of their evolution under high levels of climatic and environmental variability. We synthesize current knowledge of the vulnerability of riparian ecosystems to climate change by assessing the potential exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of their key components and processes, as well as ecosystem functions, goods and services, to projected global climatic changes. We review key pathways for ecological and human adaptation for the maintenance, restoration and enhancement of riparian ecosystem functions, goods and services and present emerging principles for planned adaptation. Our synthesis suggests that, in the absence of adaptation, riparian ecosystems are likely to be highly vulnerable to climate change impacts. However, given the critical role of riparian ecosystem functions in landscapes, as well as the strong links between riparian ecosystems and human well-being, considerable means, motives and opportunities for strategically planned adaptation to climate change also exist. The need for planned adaptation of and for riparian ecosystems is likely to be strengthened as the importance of many riparian ecosystem functions, goods and services will grow under a changing climate. Consequently, riparian ecosystems are likely to become adaptation ‘hotspots’ as the century unfolds.