Sea surface temperature (SST) is one of the most important parameters for tropical cyclone (TC) intensification. Here, it is shown that the relationship between SST and TC intensification varies considerably from basin to basin, with SST explaining less than 4% of the variance in TC intensification rates in the Atlantic, 12% in the western North Pacific, and 23% in the eastern Pacific. Several factors are shown to be responsible for these interbasin differences. First, variability of SST along TCs’ tracks is lower in the Atlantic. This is due to smaller horizontal SST gradients in the Atlantic, compared to the Pacific, and stronger damping of prestorm SST’s contribution to TC intensification by the storm-induced cold SST wake in the Atlantic. The damping occurs because SST tends to vary in phase with TC-induced SST cooling: in the Gulf of Mexico and northwestern Atlantic, where SSTs are highest, TCs tend to be strongest and their translations slowest, resulting in the strongest storm-induced cooling. The tendency for TCs to be more intense over the warmest SST in the Atlantic also limits the usefulness of SST as a predictor since stronger storms are less likely to experience intensification. Finally, SST tends to vary out of phase with vertical wind shear and outflow temperature in the western Pacific. This strengthens the relationship between SST and TC intensification more in the western Pacific than in the eastern Pacific or Atlantic. Combined, these factors explain why prestorm SST is such a poor predictor of TC intensification in the Atlantic, compared to the eastern and western North Pacific.