Climate change, population growth and extreme events can trigger social crises and instability. The processes that dominate a society’s emergence, resilience and collapse, and the complex interactions among such processes, operating within a small region, at a multicentury or even larger time scale, remain to be identified. The causes or driving forces responsible for societal changes must be identified for a plausible explanation. Historical records provide unique examples of societies that have failed to develop buffers and strategic resilience against climate change and natural variability. Using a wide range of observations from China’s Hexi Corridor, the complex interactive processes linking climate change with human society over the past two millennia were investigated. This paper proposes a domino effect resulting from a society’s failure to respond to climate change in which individual small problems create a greater challenge over long time spans. Building resilience against the impacts of climate change requires a deep understanding of social and environmental feedbacks to create a reliable buffer against future changes. This study offers lessons learned from the past 2,000 years that remain relevant today, given the projected changes in climate and extreme events. Social responses to changes can trigger further crises. This study uses historical data and finds society’s failures to respond to climate change in China’s Hexi Corridor amplified problems.