In this study, we use net ecosystem productivity (NEP) measurement data across several forest sites and a simple conceptual model to investigate the linkage between temperature and NEP by considering either temperature change in the recent past or current mean annual temperature (MAT) as a forcing. After removing the effect of stand age, forest NEP is only weakly correlated with MAT. However, temperature changes during the period of 1980–2002 do explain a very significant fraction of the current spatial patterns of NEP, although the response of the terrestrial carbon balance to temperature changes varies with season. Changes in spring temperature having the highest correlation with annual NEP. We also show that temperature changes before the 1970s had a limited influence on the current NEP, and that the impact of recent temperature changes within the last decade on NEP are not strong enough to be observable. Overall, our analysis indicates not only that temperature changes in the recent past is one of the important drivers of today's forest carbon balance in the Northern Hemisphere, but also that the ongoing global warming will contribute significantly to the near-future evolution of the Northern Hemisphere carbon sink. A non-equilibrium framework must be taken into account when studying the impacts of temperature change on current or future forest net carbon balance.