Global warming is increasing the overheating risk for many organisms, though the potential for plasticity in thermal tolerance to mitigate this risk is largely unknown. In part, this shortcoming stems from a lack of knowledge about global and taxonomic patterns of variation in tolerance plasticity. To address this critical issue, we test leading hypotheses for broad-scale variation in ectotherm tolerance plasticity using a dataset that includes vertebrate and invertebrate taxa from terrestrial, freshwater and marine habitats. Contrary to expectation, plasticity in heat tolerance was unrelated to latitude or thermal seasonality. However, plasticity in cold tolerance is associated with thermal seasonality in some habitat types. In addition, aquatic taxa have approximately twice the plasticity of terrestrial taxa. Based on the observed patterns of variation in tolerance plasticity, we propose that limited potential for behavioural plasticity (i.e. behavioural thermoregulation) favours the evolution of greater plasticity in physiological traits, consistent with the ‘Bogert effect’. Finally, we find that all ectotherms have relatively low acclimation in thermal tolerance and demonstrate that overheating risk will be minimally reduced by acclimation in even the most plastic groups. Our analysis indicates that behavioural and evolutionary mechanisms will be critical in allowing ectotherms to buffer themselves from extreme temperatures.