Rates of ecosystem recovery following disturbance affect many ecological processes, including carbon cycling in the biosphere. Here, we present a model that predicts the temperature dependence of the biomass accumulation rate following disturbances in forests. Model predictions are derived based on allometric and biochemical principles that govern plant energetics and are tested using a global database of 91 studies of secondary succession compiled from the literature. The rate of biomass accumulation during secondary succession increases with average growing season temperature as predicted based on the biochemical kinetics of photosynthesis in chloroplasts. In addition, the rate of biomass accumulation is greater in angiosperm-dominated communities than in gymnosperm-dominated ones and greater in plantations than in naturally regenerating stands. By linking the temperature-dependence of photosynthesis to the rate of whole-ecosystem biomass accumulation during secondary succession, our model and results provide one example of how emergent, ecosystem-level rate processes can be predicted based on the kinetics of individual metabolic rate.