Leaf size varies by over a 100,000-fold among species worldwide. Although 19th-century plant geographers noted that the wet tropics harbor plants with exceptionally large leaves, the latitudinal gradient of leaf size has not been well quantified nor the key climatic drivers convincingly identified. Here, we characterize worldwide patterns in leaf size. Large-leaved species predominate in wet, hot, sunny environments; small-leaved species typify hot, sunny environments only in arid conditions; small leaves are also found in high latitudes and elevations. By modeling the balance of leaf energy inputs and outputs, we show that daytime and nighttime leaf-to-air temperature differences are key to geographic gradients in leaf size. This knowledge can enrich “next-generation” vegetation models in which leaf temperature and water use during photosynthesis play key roles.