Recently observed rates of environmental change are typically much higher than those inferred for the geological past. At the same time, the magnitudes of ancient changes were often substantially greater than those established in recent history. The most pertinent disparity, however, between recent and geological rates is the timespan over which the rates are measured, which typically differ by several orders of magnitude. Here we show that rates of marked temperature changes inferred from proxy data in Earth history scale with measurement timespan as an approximate power law across nearly six orders of magnitude (102 to >107 years). This scaling reveals how climate signals measured in the geological record alias transient variability, even during the most pronounced climatic perturbations of the Phanerozoic. Our findings indicate that the true attainable pace of climate change on timescales of greatest societal relevance is underestimated in geological archives.