The response of plant respiration (R) to temperature is an important component of the biosphere's response to climate change. At present, most global models assume that R increases exponentially with temperature and does not thermally acclimate. Although we now know that acclimation does occur, quantitative incorporation of acclimation into models has been lacking. Using a dataset for 19 species grown at four temperatures (7, 14, 21, and 28 °C), we have assessed whether sustained differences in growth temperature systematically alter the slope and/or intercepts of the generalized log–log plots of leaf R vs. leaf mass per unit leaf area (LMA) and vs. leaf nitrogen (N) concentration. The extent to which variations in growth temperature account for the scatter observed in log–log R–LMA–N scaling relationships was also assessed. We show that thermal history accounts for up to 20% of the scatter in scaling relationships used to predict R, with the impact of thermal history on R–LMA–N generalized scaling relationships being highly predictable. This finding enabled us to quantitatively incorporate acclimation of R into a coupled global climate–vegetation model. We show that accounting for acclimation of R has negligible impact on predicted annual rates of global R, net primary productivity (NPP) or future atmospheric CO2 concentrations. However, our analysis suggests that accounting for acclimation is important when considering carbon fluxes among thermally contrasting biomes (e.g. accounting for acclimation decreases predicted rates of R by up to 20% in high-temperature biomes). We conclude that acclimation of R needs to be accounted for when predicting potential responses of terrestrial carbon exchange to climatic change at a regional level.