Assessing the vulnerability of species to climate change serves as the basis for climate‐adaptation planning and climate‐smart conservation, and typically involves an evaluation of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity (AC). AC is a species’ ability to cope with or adjust to changing climatic conditions, and is the least understood and most inconsistently applied of these three factors. We propose an attribute‐based framework for evaluating the AC of species, identifying two general classes of adaptive responses: “persist in place” and “shift in space”. Persist‐in‐place attributes enable species to survive in situ, whereas the shift‐in‐space response emphasizes attributes that facilitate tracking of suitable bioclimatic conditions. We provide guidance for assessing AC attributes and demonstrate the framework's application for species with disparate life histories. Results illustrate the broad utility of this generalized framework for informing adaptation planning and guiding species conservation in a rapidly changing climate.