Evidence for abrupt climate changes on millennial and shorter timescales is widespread in marine and terrestrial climate records (Dansgard et al., 1993, doi:10.1038/364218a0; Bond et al., 1993, doi:10.1038/365143a0; Charles et al., 1996, doi:10.1016/0012-821X(96)00083-0, Bard et al., 1997, doi:10.1038/385707a0). Rapid reorganization of ocean circulation is considered to exert some control over these changes (Broecker et al., 1985, doi:10.1038/315021a0), as are shifts in the concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases (Broecker, 1994, doi:10.1038/372421a0). The response of the climate system to these two influences is fundamentally different: slowing of thermohaline overturn in the North Atlantic Ocean is expected to decrease northward heat transport by the ocean and to induce warming of the tropical Atlantic (Crowley, 1992, doi:10.1029/92PA01058; Manabe and Stouffer, 1997, doi:10.1029/96PA03932), whereas atmospheric greenhouse forcing should cause roughly synchronous global temperature changes (Manabe et al., 1991, doi:10.1175/1520-0442(1991)004<0785:TROACO>2.0.CO;2). So these two mechanisms of climate change should be distinguishable by the timing of surface-water temperature variations relative to changes in deep-water circulation. Here we present a high-temporal-resolution record of sea surface temperatures from the western tropical North Atlantic Ocean which spans the past 29,000 years, derived from measurements of temperature-sensitive alkenone unsaturation in sedimentary organic matter. We find significant warming is documented for Heinrich event H1 (16,900-15,400 calendar years bp) and the Younger Dryas event (12,900-11,600 cal. yr bp), which were periods of intense cooling in the northern North Atlantic. Temperature changes in the tropical and high-latitude North Atlantic are out of phase, suggesting that the thermohaline circulation was the important trigger for these rapid climate changes.