An idealized coupled ocean–atmosphere is constructed to study climatic equilibria and variability. The model focuses on the role of large-scale fluid motions in the climate system. The atmospheric component is an eddy-resolving two-level global primitive equation model with simplified physical parameterizations. The oceanic component is a zonally averaged sector model of the thermohaline circulation. The two components exchange heat and freshwater fluxes synchronously. Coupled integrations are carried out over periods of several centuries to identify the equilibrium states of the ocean–atmosphere system. It is shown that there exist at least three types of equilibria, which are distinguished by whether they have upwelling or downwelling in the polar regions. Each of the coupled equilibria has a close analog in the ocean-only model with mixed boundary conditions. The oceanic circulation in the coupled model exhibits natural variability on interdecadal and longer timescales. The dominant interdecadal mode of variability is associated with the advection of oceanic temperature anomalies in the sinking regions. The sensitivity of the coupled model to climatic perturbations is studied. A rapid increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations leads to a collapse of the meridional overturning in the ocean. Introduction of a large positive surface freshwater anomaly in the high latitudes leads to a temporary suppression of the sinking motion, followed by a rapid recovery, due primarily to the high latitude cooling associated with the reduction of oceanic heat transport. In this evolution, the secondary roles played by the atmospheric heat transport and moisture transport in destabilizing the thermohaline circulation are compared, and the former is found to be dominant.