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Anthropogenic changes to the Earth now rival those caused by the forces of nature and have shepherded us into a new planetary epoch – the Anthropocene. Such changes include profound and often unexpected alterations to coral reef ecosystems and the services they provide to human societies. Ensuring that reefs and their services endure during the Anthropocene will require that key drivers of coral reef change – fishing, water quality, and anthropogenic climate change – stay within acceptable levels or “safe operating spaces”. The capacity to remain within these safe boundaries hinges on understanding the local, but also the increasingly global and cross-scale, socioeconomic causes of these human drivers of change. Consequently, local and regional management efforts that are successful in the short term may ultimately fail if current decision making and institution-building around coral reef systems remains fragmented, poorly coordinated, and unable to keep pace with the escalating speed of social, technological, and ecological change.