The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation is widely believed to affect climate. Changes in ocean circulation have been inferred from records of the deep water chemical composition derived from sedimentary nutrient proxies, but their impact on climate is difficult to assess because such reconstructions provide insufficient constraints on the rate of overturning. Here we report measurements of 231Pa/230Th, a kinematic proxy for the meridional overturning circulation, in a sediment core from the subtropical North Atlantic Ocean. We find that the meridional overturning was nearly, or completely, eliminated during the coldest deglacial interval in the North Atlantic region, beginning with the catastrophic iceberg discharge Heinrich event H1, 17,500 yr ago, and declined sharply but briefly into the Younger Dryas cold event, about 12,700 yr ago. Following these cold events, the 231Pa/230Th record indicates that rapid accelerations of the meridional overturning circulation were concurrent with the two strongest regional warming events during deglaciation. These results confirm the significance of variations in the rate of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation for abrupt climate changes.