Since 2014, coral reefs worldwide have been subjected to the most extensive, prolonged and damaging heat wave in recorded history1. Large sections of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) bleached in response to heat stress in 2016 and 2017 — the first back-to-back event on record. Such severe coral bleaching results in widespread loss of reef habitat and biodiversity. Globally, we are facing catastrophic decline of these ecosystems, which sustain services valued at around $US 10 trillion per year2, are home to over a million species3, and feed and support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people4.
Model predictions indicate that mass coral bleaching could become the new norm by 2050 (ref. 5). Critically, even if global warming can be kept within 1.5⁰C above preindustrial levels, shallow tropical seas would warm at least 0.4°C in coming decades, triggering frequent bleaching of the most sensitive habitat-forming coral species6. This outlook poses a time-critical decision challenge for management and conservation. Existing conservation approaches, despite innovative governance arrangements7, could simply become insufficient to protect coral reefs under any expected climate future. Thus, for coral reefs to remain resilient and their services sustained, we argue that new and potentially riskier interventions must be implemented alongside conventional management efforts and strong action to curb global warming. We build the case for this strategy below.