The evolution of life on Earth has been driven by disturbances of different types and magnitudes over the 4.6 million years of Earth’s history (Raup, 1994, Alroy, 2008). One example for such disturbances are mass extinctions which are characterized by an exceptional increase in the extinction rate affecting a great number of taxa in a short interval of geologic time (Sepkoski, 1986). During the 541 million years of the Phanerozoic, life on Earth suffered five exceptionally severe mass extinctions named the “Big Five Extinctions”. Many mass extinctions are linked to changes in climate (Feulner, 2009). Hence, the study of past mass extinctions is not only intriguing, but can also provide insights into the complex nature of the Earth system. This thesis aims at deepening our understanding of the triggers of mass extinctions and how they affected life. To accomplish this, I investigate changes in climate during two of the Big Five extinctions using a coupled climate model. During the Devonian (419.2–358.9 million years ago) the first vascular plants and vertebrates evolved on land while extinction events occurred in the ocean (Algeo et al., 1995). The causes of these formative changes, their interactions and their links to changes in climate are still poorly understood. Therefore, we explore the sensitivity of the Devonian climate to various boundary conditions using an intermediate-complexity climate model (Brugger et al., 2019). In contrast to Le Hir et al. (2011), we find only a minor biogeophysical effect of changes in vegetation cover due to unrealistically high soil albedo values used in the earlier study. In addition, our results cannot support the strong influence of orbital parameters on the Devonian climate, as simulated with a climate model with a strongly simplified ocean model (De Vleeschouwer et al., 2013, 2014, 2017). We can only reproduce the changes in Devonian climate suggested by proxy data by decreasing atmospheric CO2. Still, finding agreement between the evolution of sea surface temperatures reconstructed from proxy data (Joachimski et al., 2009) and our simulations remains challenging and suggests a lower δ18O ratio of Devonian seawater. Furthermore, our study of the sensitivity of the Devonian climate reveals a prevailing mode of climate variability on a timescale of decades to centuries. The quasi-periodic ocean temperature fluctuations are linked to a physical mechanism of changing sea-ice cover, ocean convection and overturning in high northern latitudes. In the second study of this thesis (Dahl et al., under review) a new reconstruction of atmospheric CO2 for the Devonian, which is based on CO2-sensitive carbon isotope fractionation in the earliest vascular plant fossils, suggests a much earlier drop of atmo- spheric CO2 concentration than previously reconstructed, followed by nearly constant CO2 concentrations during the Middle and Late Devonian. Our simulations for the Early Devonian with identical boundary conditions as in our Devonian sensitivity study (Brugger et al., 2019), but with a low atmospheric CO2 concentration of 500 ppm, show no direct conflict with available proxy and paleobotanical data and confirm that under the simulated climatic conditions carbon isotope fractionation represents a robust proxy for atmospheric CO2. To explain the earlier CO2 drop we suggest that early forms of vascular land plants have already strongly influenced weathering. This new perspective on the Devonian questions previous ideas about the climatic conditions and earlier explanations for the Devonian mass extinctions. The second mass extinction investigated in this thesis is the end-Cretaceous mass extinction (66 million years ago) which differs from the Devonian mass extinctions in terms of the processes involved and the timescale on which the extinctions occurred. In the two studies presented here (Brugger et al., 2017, 2021), we model the climatic effects of the Chicxulub impact, one of the proposed causes of the end-Cretaceous extinction, for the first millennium after the impact. The light-dimming effect of stratospheric sulfate aerosols causes severe cooling, with a decrease of global annual mean surface air temperature of at least 26◦C and a recovery to pre-impact temperatures after more than 30 years. The sudden surface cooling of the ocean induces deep convection which brings nutrients from the deep ocean via upwelling to the surface ocean. Using an ocean biogeochemistry model we explore the combined effect of ocean mixing and iron-rich dust originating from the impactor on the marine biosphere. As soon as light levels have recovered, we find a short, but prominent peak in marine net primary productivity. This newly discovered mechanism could result in toxic effects for marine near-surface ecosystems. Comparison of our model results to proxy data (Vellekoop et al., 2014, 2016, Hull et al., 2020) suggests that carbon release from the terrestrial biosphere is required in addition to the carbon dioxide which can be attributed to the target material. Surface ocean acidification caused by the addition of carbon dioxide and sulfur is only moderate. Taken together, the results indicate a significant contribution of the Chicxulub impact to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction by triggering multiple stressors for the Earth system. Although the sixth extinction we face today is characterized by human intervention in nature, this thesis shows that we can gain many insights into future extinctions from studying past mass extinctions, such as the importance of the rate of change (Rothman, 2017), the interplay of multiple stressors (Gunderson et al., 2016), and changes in the carbon cycle (Rothman, 2017, Tierney et al., 2020).