June's International Coral Reef Symposium brought together more than 2,500 influential people who work on coral reefs, yet discussion centred on solving the global-scale issue of climate change, following a worldwide coral-bleaching event (Nature http://doi.org/bdmn; 2015). In our view, the symposium missed an important opportunity to develop real conservation outcomes for coral reefs at a local scale (see J. E. Cinner et al. Nature 535, 416–419; 2016).

Discussions on climate change seem unproductive for environmental managers and scientists on the ground. Few individuals have a platform for engaging with global political leaders to drive the conservation agenda and influence policies that affect climate trajectories. Instead, we should be working together to develop strategies for local action that are robust to the uncertainty surrounding future climate scenarios.

We shall have to differentiate between those uncertainties that we can resolve at a local scale, such as the benefits of reducing overfishing or inputs of sediment and nutrients, and those that we cannot. To conserve coral reefs, we need objectives that can be turned into cost-efficient actions to deliver measurable, uncertainty-proof, local benefits.