Significantly more carbon is stored in the world's soils-including peatlands, wetlands and permafrost-than is present in the atmosphere. Disagreement exists, however, regarding the effects of climate change on global soil carbon stocks. If carbon stored belowground is transferred to the atmosphere by a warming-induced acceleration of its decomposition, a positive feedback to climate change would occur. Conversely, if increases of plant-derived carbon inputs to soils exceed increases in decomposition, the feedback would be negative. Despite much research, a consensus has not yet emerged on the temperature sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition. Unravelling the feedback effect is particularly difficult, because the diverse soil organic compounds exhibit a wide range of kinetic properties, which determine the intrinsic temperature sensitivity of their decomposition. Moreover, several environmental constraints obscure the intrinsic temperature sensitivity of substrate decomposition, causing lower observed `apparent' temperature sensitivity, and these constraints may, themselves, be sensitive to climate.