Initial land cover distribution varies among Earth system models, an uncertainty in initial conditions that can substantially affect carbon and climate projections. We use the integrated Earth System Model to show that a 3.9 M km2 difference in 2005 global forest area (9–14% of total forest area) generates uncertainties in initial atmospheric CO2 concentration, terrestrial carbon, and local temperature that propagate through a future simulation following the Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5. By 2095, the initial 6 ppmv uncertainty range increases to 9 ppmv and the initial 26 PgC uncertainty range in terrestrial carbon increases to 33 PgC. The initial uncertainty range in annual average local temperature of −0.74 to 0.96 °C persists throughout the future simulation, with a seasonal maximum in Dec‐Jan‐Feb. These results highlight the importance of accurately characterizing historical land use and land cover to reduce overall initial condition uncertainty.