Recent years have shown a rise in mean global temperatures and a shift in the geographical distribution of ectothermic animals. For a cause and effect analysis the present paper discusses those physiological processes limiting thermal tolerance. The lower heat tolerance in metazoa compared with unicellular eukaryotes and bacteria suggests that a complex systemic rather than molecular process is limiting in metazoa. Whole-animal aerobic scope appears as the first process limited at low and high temperatures, linked to the progressively insufficient capacity of circulation and ventilation. Oxygen levels in body fluids may decrease, reflecting excessive oxygen demand at high temperatures or insufficient aerobic capacity of mitochondria at low temperatures. Aerobic scope falls at temperatures beyond the thermal optimum and vanishes at low or high critical temperatures when transition to an anaerobic mitochondrial metabolism occurs. The adjustment of mitochondrial densities on top of parallel molecular or membrane adjustments appears crucial for maintaining aerobic scope and for shifting thermal tolerance. In conclusion, the capacity of oxygen delivery matches full aerobic scope only within the thermal optimum. At temperatures outside this range, only time-limited survival is supported by residual aerobic scope, then anaerobic metabolism and finally molecular protection by heat shock proteins and antioxidative defence. In a cause and effect hierarchy, the progressive increase in oxygen limitation at extreme temperatures may even enhance oxidative and denaturation stress. As a corollary, capacity limitations at a complex level of organisation, the oxygen delivery system, define thermal tolerance limits before molecular functions become disturbed.