Ecosystem services are typically valued for their immediate material or cultural benefits to human wellbeing, supported by regulating and supporting services. Under climate change, with more frequent stresses and novel shocks, ‘climate adaptation services’, are defined as the benefits to people from increased social ability to respond to change, provided by the capability of ecosystems to moderate and adapt to climate change and variability. They broaden the ecosystem services framework to assist decision makers in planning for an uncertain future with new choices and options. We present a generic framework for operationalising the adaptation services concept. Four steps guide the identification of intrinsic ecological mechanisms that facilitate the maintenance and emergence of ecosystem services during periods of change, and so materialise as adaptation services. We applied this framework for four contrasted Australian ecosystems. Comparative analyses enabled by the operational framework suggest that adaptation services that emerge during trajectories of ecological change are supported by common mechanisms: vegetation structural diversity, the role of keystone species or functional groups, response diversity and landscape connectivity, which underpin the persistence of function and the reassembly of ecological communities under severe climate change and variability. Such understanding should guide ecosystem management towards adaptation planning.