Phenological shifts constitute one of the clearest manifestations of climate warming. Advanced emergence is widely reported in high-latitude ectotherms, but a significant number of species exhibit delayed, or no change in, emergence. Here we present a mechanistic theoretical framework that reconciles these disparate observations and predicts population-level phenological patterns based solely on data on temperature responses of the underlying life history traits. Our model, parameterized with data from insects at different latitudes, shows that peak abundance occurs earlier in the year when warming increases the mean environmental temperature, but is delayed when warming increases the amplitude of seasonal fluctuations. We find that warming does not necessarily lead to a longer activity period in high-latitude species because it elevates summer temperatures above the upper limit for reproduction and development. Our findings both confirm and confound expectations for ectotherm species affected by climate warming: an increase in the mean temperature is more detrimental to low-latitude species adapted to high mean temperatures and low-amplitude seasonal fluctuations; an increase in seasonal fluctuations is more detrimental to high-latitude species adapted to low mean temperatures and high-amplitude fluctuations.