The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is one of the most important components of the global climate system, but its potential response to an anthropogenic increase in atmospheric CO 2 remains largely unknown. One of the major limitations in ENSO prediction is our poor understanding of the relationship between ENSO variability and long-term changes in Tropical Pacific oceanography. Here we investigate this relationship using palaeorecords derived from the geochemistry of planktonic foraminifera. Our results indicate a strong negative correlation between ENSO variability and zonal gradient of sea-surface temperatures across the Tropical Pacific during the last 22 ky. This strong correlation implies a mechanistic link that tightly couples zonal sea-surface temperature gradient and ENSO variability during large climate changes and provides a unique insight into potential ENSO evolution in the future by suggesting enhanced ENSO variability under a global warming scenario.