Corals and coral reefs confront us with a variety of paradoxes in terms of their responses to global change. The species appear evolutionarily long-lived and stable, and combinations of organisms recur and persist at levels ranging from endosymbiosis to palaeocommunity structure. The fact that these organisms and communities occupy a seemingly precarious environment near the common interface of land, sea, and air suggests that they possess powerful adaptive and acclimative mechanisms, and the special characteristics associated with their range of reproductive options, their modular (colonial) form, and their symbiotic associations provide multiple pathways for adaptation. At the same time, they are widely considered to be vulnerable to anthropogenic stresses, and to show signs of deterioration on a global scale. Interest in corals is further enhanced by their unique position with regard to the carbon cycle, with inorganic and organic carbon metabolisms that are of comparable magnitudes. The durable limestone structures they create modify the shallow-water environment, and their mineral skeletons preserve in their isotopic, chemical, and structural characteristics records of past environmental conditions. Whether as survivors, recorders, or victims, their relationship to global change is fascinating and instructive. This paper provides a general background and context for the specific papers that make up this topical issue of Global Change Biology. ?? 1996 Blackwell Science Ltd.