As the impacts of global climate change on species are increasingly evident, there is a clear need to adapt conservation efforts worldwide. Species vulnerability assessments (VAs) are increasingly used to summarize all relevant information to determine a species’ potential vulnerability to climate change and are frequently the first step in informing climate adaptation efforts. VAs commonly integrate multiple sources of information by utilizing a framework that distinguishes factors relevant to species exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity. However, this framework was originally developed for human systems, and its use to evaluate species vulnerability has serious practical and theoretical limitations. By instead defining vulnerability as the degree to which a species is unable to exhibit any of the responses necessary for persistence under climate change (i.e., toleration of projected changes, migration to new climate-compatible areas, enduring in microrefugia, and evolutionary adaptation), we can bring VAs into the realm of ecological science without applying borrowed abstract concepts that have consistently challenged species-centric research and management. This response-based framework to assess species vulnerability to climate change allows better integration of relevant ecological data and past research, yielding results with much clearer implications for conservation and research prioritization.