Intensification of the hydrologic cycle is a key dimension of climate change, with substantial impacts on human and natural systems. A basic measure of hydrologic cycle intensification is the increase in global-mean precipitation per unit surface warming, which varies by a factor of three in current-generation climate models (about 1–3 per cent per kelvin). Part of the uncertainty may originate from atmosphere–radiation interactions. As the climate warms, increases in shortwave absorption from atmospheric moistening will suppress the precipitation increase. This occurs through a reduction of the latent heating increase required to maintain a balanced atmospheric energy budget. Using an ensemble of climate models, here we show that such models tend to underestimate the sensitivity of solar absorption to variations in atmospheric water vapour, leading to an underestimation in the shortwave absorption increase and an overestimation in the precipitation increase. This sensitivity also varies considerably among models due to differences in radiative transfer parameterizations, explaining a substantial portion of model spread in the precipitation response. Consequently, attaining accurate shortwave absorption responses through improvements to the radiative transfer schemes could reduce the spread in the predicted global precipitation increase per degree warming for the end of the twenty-first century by about 35 per cent, and reduce the estimated ensemble-mean increase in this quantity by almost 40 per cent.