Predicting the response of tropical rainfall to climate change remains a challenge(1). Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are expected to affect the hydrological cycle through increases in global mean temperature and the water vapour content of the atmosphere(2-4). However, regional precipitation changes also closely depend on the atmospheric circulation, which is expected to weaken in a warmer world(4-6). Here, we assess the effect of a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on tropical circulation and precipitation by analysing results from a suite of simulations from multiple state-of-the-art climate models, and an operational numerical weather prediction model. In a scenario in which humans continue to use fossil fuels unabated, about half the tropical circulation change projected by the end of the twenty-first century, and consequently a large fraction of the regional precipitation change, is independent of global surfacewarming. Instead, these robust circulation and precipitation changes are a consequence of the weaker net radiative cooling of the atmosphere associated with higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, which affects the strength of atmospheric vertical motions. This implies that geo-engineering schemes aimed at reducing global warming without removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere would fail to fully mitigate precipitation changes in the tropics. Strategies that may help constrain rainfall projections are suggested.