Climatic variables such as temperature and precipitation play an important role in controlling local and regional scale differences in population dynamics and species distributions, and large-scale climatic events such as El Niño southern oscillation (ENSO) have been shown to affect population dynamics of key species in many ecosystems, particularly in kelp forests. Few studies have been able to evaluate the consequences of climate variables on the structure and dynamics of biological communities, in large part because the lack of data at appropriate spatial and temporal scales has made it difficult to adequately address local-scale responses of species and communities to such events over relevant time scales. Here, we combined an unprecedented dataset of kelp forest species’ abundances from the Channel Islands, California with data for several local, regional, and global scale climatic variables to evaluate the temporal and spatial scale at which one can detect community-wide effects of climate variables, in particular ENSO events. We found large and significant local-scale differences in community structure, but these differences were not related to differences in climatic variables. Moreover, giant kelp abundance, which has been shown to be highly sensitive to water temperature and storm disturbance, was a poor predictor of community differences, and all communities tended to decline in abundance over the 20-year sampling period, suggesting a press perturbation to the system such as PDO cycles or sustained fishing pressure. Although ENSO events can have dramatic impacts on the abundance and distribution of giant kelp itself across the range of the species, such events appear to have little effect on local-scale kelp forest community structure or dynamics.