Global warming is expected to lead to a large increase in atmospheric water vapor content and to changes in the hydrological cycle, which include an intensification of precipitation extremes. The intensity of precipitation extremes is widely held to increase proportionately to the increase in atmospheric water vapor content. Here, we show that this is not the case in 21st-century climate change scenarios simulated with climate models. In the tropics, precipitation extremes are not simulated reliably and do not change consistently among climate models; in the extratropics, they consistently increase more slowly than atmospheric water vapor content. We give a physical basis for how precipitation extremes change with climate and show that their changes depend on changes in the moist-adiabatic temperature lapse rate, in the upward velocity, and in the temperature when precipitation extremes occur. For the tropics, the theory suggests that improving the simulation of upward velocities in climate models is essential for improving predictions of precipitation extremes; for the extratropics, agreement with theory and the consistency among climate models increase confidence in the robustness of predictions of precipitation extremes under climate change.