Climate change not only affects mean temperature and precipitation but also exacerbates temporal fluctuations in these conditions. However, we know relatively little about how species respond to such climate fluctuations, with respect to variation in vital rates (i.e. survival, growth and reproduction of individuals) and population fluctuations. We examine whether populations display evidence of buffering against environmental variation in one of two ways: (1) through negative covariances among vital rates, or (2) reduction of variation in those vital rates to which population growth is most sensitive. We analyse time series of demographic data for 40 plant species and show that there is no evidence for either of these mechanisms. In species in which there is evidence for vital rate covariation, positive covariances between reproduction and survival rates predominate, and tend to magnify the effect of variability. Increasing climate variability is therefore expected to increase population fluctuations and extinction risks.