Shrub encroachment into grass-dominated biomes is occurring globally due to a variety of anthropogenic activities, but the consequences for carbon (C) inputs, storage and cycling remain unclear. We studied eight North American graminoid-dominated ecosystems invaded by shrubs, from arctic tundra to Atlantic coastal dunes, to quantify patterns and controls of C inputs via aboveground net primary production (ANPP). Across a fourfold range in mean annual precipitation (MAP), a key regulator of ecosystem C input at the continental scale, shrub invasion decreased ANPP in xeric sites, but dramatically increased ANPP (>1000 g m−2) at high MAP, where shrub patches maintained extraordinarily high leaf area. Concurrently, the relationship between MAP and ANPP shifted from being nonlinear in grasslands to linear in shrublands. Thus, relatively abrupt (<50 years) shifts in growth form dominance, without changes in resource quantity, can fundamentally alter continental-scale pattern of C inputs and their control by MAP in ways that exceed the direct effects of climate change alone.