Peatlands store approximately 30% of global soil carbon, most in moss-dominated bogs. Future climatic changes, such as changes in precipitation patterns and warming, are expected to affect peat bog vegetation composition and thereby its long-term carbon sequestration capacity. Theoretical work suggests that an episode of rapid environmental change is more likely to trigger transitions to alternative ecosystem states than a gradual, but equally large, change in conditions. We used a dynamic vegetation model to explore the impacts of drought events and increased temperature on vegetation composition of temperate peat bogs. We analyzed the consequences of six patterns of summer drought events combined with five temperature scenarios to test whether an open peat bog dominated by moss (Sphagnum) could shift to a tree-dominated state. Unexpectedly, neither a gradual decrease in the amount of summer precipitation nor the occurrence of a number of extremely dry summers in a row could shift the moss-dominated peat bog permanently into a tree-dominated peat bog. The increase in tree biomass during drought events was unable to trigger positive feedbacks that keep the ecosystem in a tree-dominated state after a return to previous 'normal' rainfall conditions. In contrast, temperature increases from 1 °C onward already shifted peat bogs into tree-dominated ecosystems. In our simulations, drought events facilitated tree establishment, but temperature determined how much tree biomass could develop. Our results suggest that under current climatic conditions, peat bog vegetation is rather resilient to drought events, but very sensitive to temperature increases, indicating that future warming is likely to trigger persistent vegetation shifts. © 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.