‘C4 photosynthesis’ refers to a suite of traits that increase photosynthesis in high light and high temperature environments. Most C4 plants are grasses, which dominate tropical and subtropical grasslands and savannas but are conspicuously absent from cold growing season climates. Physiological attributes of C4 photosynthesis have been invoked to explain C4 grass biogeography; however, the pathway evolved exclusively in grass lineages of tropical origin, suggesting that the prevalence of C4 grasses in warm climates could be due to other traits inherited from their non-C4 ancestors. Here we investigate the relative influences of phylogeny and photosynthetic pathway in determining the ecological distributions of C4 grasses in Hawaii. We find that the restriction of C4 grasses to warmer areas is due largely to their evolutionary history as members of a warm-climate grass clade, but that the pathway does appear to confer a competitive advantage to grasses in more arid environments.