Soil carbon, a major component of the global carbon inventory, has significant potential for change with changing climate and human land use. We applied the Century ecosystem model to a series of forest and grassland sites distributed globally to examine large‐scale controls over soil carbon. Key site‐specific parameters influencing soil carbon dynamics are soil texture and foliar lignin content; accordingly, we perturbed these variables at each site to establish a range of carbon concentrations and turnover times. We examined the simulated soil carbon stores, turnover times, and C:N ratios for correlations with patterns of independent variables. Results showed that soil carbon is related linearly to soil texture, increasing as clay content increases, that soil carbon stores and turnover time are related to mean annual temperature by negative exponential functions, and that heterotrophic respiration originates from recent detritus (∼50%), microbial turnover (∼30%), and soil organic matter (∼20%) with modest variations between forest and grassland ecosystems. The effect of changing temperature on soil organic carbon (SOC) estimated by Century is dSOC/dT= 183e−0.034T. Global extrapolation of this relationship leads to an estimated sensitivity of soil C storage to a temperature of −11.1 Pg° C−1, excluding extreme arid and organic soils. In Century, net primary production (NPP) and soil carbon are closely coupled through the N cycle, so that as temperatures increase, accelerated N release first results in fertilization responses, increasing C inputs. The Century‐predicted effect of temperature on carbon storage is modified by as much as 100% by the N cycle feedback. Century‐estimated soil C sensitivity (−11.1 Pg° C−1) is similar to losses predicted with a simple data‐based calculation (−14.1 Pg° C−1). Inclusion of the N cycle is important for even first‐order predictions of terrestrial carbon balance. If the NPP‐SOC feedback is disrupted by land use or other disturbances, then SOC sensitivity can greatly exceed that estimated in our simulations. Century results further suggest that if climate change results in drying of organic soils (peats), soil carbon loss rates can be high.