This study addressed how different climate data sets influence simulations of the global terrestrial carbon cycle. For the period 1982–2001, we compared the results of simulations based on three climate data sets (NCEP/NCAR, NCEP/DOE AMIP-II and ERA40) employed in meteorological, ecological and biogeochemical studies and two different models (BEAMS and Sim-CYCLE). The models differed in their parameterizations of photosynthetic and phenological processes but used the same surface climate (e.g. shortwave radiation, temperature and precipitation), vegetation, soil and topography data. The three data sets give different climatic conditions, especially for shortwave radiation, in terms of long-term means, linear trends and interannual variability. Consequently, the simulation results for global net primary productivity varied by 16%–43% only from differences in the climate data sets, especially in these regions where the shortwave radiation data differed markedly: differences in the climate data set can strongly influence simulation results. The differences among the climate data set and between the two models resulted in slightly different spatial distribution and interannual variability in the net ecosystem carbon budget. To minimize uncertainty, we should pay attention to the specific climate data used. We recommend developing an accurate standard climate data set for simulation studies.