The consequences of global change for the maintenance of species diversity will depend on the sum of each species responses to the environment and on the interactions among them. A wide ecological literature supports that these species-specific responses can arise from factors related to life strategies, evolutionary history and intraspecific variation, and also from environmental variation in space and time. In the light of recent advances from coexistence theory combined with mechanistic explanations of diversity maintenance, we discuss how global change drivers can influence species coexistence. We revise the importance of both competition and facilitation for understanding coexistence in different ecosystems, address the influence of phylogenetic relatedness, functional traits, phenotypic plasticity and intraspecific variability, and discuss lessons learnt from invasion ecology. While most previous studies have focused their efforts on disentangling the mechanisms that maintain the biological diversity in species-rich ecosystems such as tropical forests, grasslands and coral reefs, we argue that much can be learnt from pauci-specific communities where functional variability within each species, together with demographic and stochastic processes becomes key to understand species interactions and eventually community responses to global change.