The land/sea warming contrast is a phenomenon of both equilibrium and transient simulations of climate change: large areas of the land surface at most latitudes undergo temperature changes whose amplitude is more than those of the surrounding oceans. Using idealised GCM experiments with perturbed SSTs, we show that the land/sea contrast in equilibrium simulations is associated with local feedbacks and the hydrological cycle over land, rather than with externally imposed radiative forcing. This mechanism also explains a large component of the land/sea contrast in transient simulations as well. We propose a conceptual model with three elements: (1) there is a spatially variable level in the lower troposphere at which temperature change is the same over land and sea; (2) the dependence of lapse rate on moisture and temperature causes different changes in lapse rate upon warming over land and sea, and hence a surface land/sea temperature contrast; (3) moisture convergence over land predominantly takes place at levels significantly colder than the surface; wherever moisture supply over land is limited, the increase of evaporation over land upon warming is limited, reducing the relative humidity in the boundary layer over land, and hence also enhancing the land/sea contrast. The non-linearity of the Clausius–Clapeyron relationship of saturation specific humidity to temperature is critical in (2) and (3). We examine the sensitivity of the land/sea contrast to model representations of different physical processes using a large ensemble of climate model integrations with perturbed parameters, and find that it is most sensitive to representation of large-scale cloud and stomatal closure. We discuss our results in the context of high-resolution and Earth-system modelling of climate change.