Current anthropogenic impacts, including habitat modification and climate change, may contribute to a sixth mass extinction1. To mitigate these impacts and slow further losses of biodiversity, we need to understand which species are most at risk and identify the factors contributing to current and future declines. Such information is often obtained through large-scale, comparative and biogeographic analysis of lineages or traits that are potentially sensitive to ongoing anthropogenic change—for instance to predict which regions are most susceptible to climate change-induced biodiversity loss2, 3, 4. However, for this approach to be generally successful, the underlying causes of identified geographical trends need to be carefully considered5. Here, I augment and reanalyse a global data set of insect thermal tolerances, evaluating the contribution of recent and contemporary range expansions to latitudinal variation in thermal niche breadth. Previous indications that high-latitude ectotherms exhibit broad thermal niches and high warming tolerances held only for species undergoing range expansions or invasions. In contrast, species with stable or declining geographic ranges exhibit latitudinally decreasing absolute thermal tolerances and no latitudinal variation in tolerance breadths. Thus, non-range-expanding species, particularly insular or endemic species, which are often of highest conservation priority, are unlikely to tolerate future climatic warming at high latitudes.