Climatic change has long been regarded as an important factor in evolutionary history. In particular, periods of enhanced extinction in marine taxa (especially those from warmer waters) have frequently been linked to decreases in seawater temperature. Studies of the physiology of marine invertebrates and fish alive today have revealed well-developed abilities to cope with temperature change, and there would thus appear to be a dichotomy between the rates of temperature change associated with extinction in geological history and the very much faster rates (by several orders of magnitude) with which many marine organisms can cope today. Nevertheless, evidence from ecology and biogeography indicates that temperature, or some temperature-associated factor, does play a significant role in determining the limits to performance, and hence distribution. The resolution of the dichotomy between the evidence from paleontology and physiology may come through a consideration of the role of the previous evolutionary history of the fauna, the influence of sudden temperature events, or the impact of climatic change on individual competitive ability, community structure, and ecosystem functioning. Studies of the energetics of marine invertebrates in relation to temperature and the evolutionary history of polar faunas indicate that we should beware of anthropocentric judgements in attempting to understand the role of climatic change in evolutionary history, and be critical in distinguishing the role of temperature per se from temperature-associated ecological factors. Present evidence suggests that climatic change in the sea, at least at the rates currently believed to be typical, is unlikely to cause extinction by direct physiological impact. It is more likely that extinction is caused by ecological factors; temperature change is thus only one of several factors that may promote those ecological changes that are currently the best candidates for the proximate cause of extinction in the sea.