Climate strongly affects the production of sediment from mountain catchments as well as its transport and deposition within adjacent sedimentary basins. However, identifying climatic influences on basin stratigraphy is complicated by nonlinearities, feedback loops, lag times, buffering and convergence among processes within the sediment routeing system. The Palaeocene/Eocene thermal maximum (PETM) arguably represents the most abrupt and dramatic instance of global warming in the Cenozoic era and has been proposed to be a geologic analogue for anthropogenic climate change. Here we evaluate the fluvial response in western Colorado to the PETM. Concomitant with the carbon isotope excursion marking the PETM we document a basin-wide shift to thick, multistoried, sheets of sandstone characterized by variable channel dimensions, dominance of upper flow regime sedimentary structures, and prevalent crevasse splay deposits. This progradation of coarse-grained lithofacies matches model predictions for rapid increases in sediment flux and discharge, instigated by regional vegetation overturn and enhanced monsoon precipitation. Yet the change in fluvial deposition persisted long after the approximately 200,000-year-long PETM with its increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, emphasizing the strong role the protracted transmission of catchment responses to distant depositional systems has in constructing large-scale basin stratigraphy. Our results, combined with evidence for increased dissolved loads and terrestrial clay export to world oceans, indicate that the transient hyper-greenhouse climate of the PETM may represent a major geomorphic 'system-clearing event', involving a global mobilization of dissolved and solid sediment loads on Earth's surface.