Global environmental change (GEC) in the ocean threatens marine ecosystems and the people who depend on them. A growing scientific effort is attempting to evaluate the impacts of environmental changes on ecosystems and ecosystem services and guide policy-making to respond to this global issue. Focusing on social-ecological systems of coral reefs, this thesis critically reviews the approaches put forward in the literature to understand gaps and to design new methodologies, assessments, and indicators to guide science and policy. Our findings show that a regionally targeted strategy of research should address complexity and provide more realistic projections about the impacts of GEC on coral reefs ecosystems and ecosystem services. We map global-scale indicators to understand where human dependence on coral reef ecosystems will be affected by globally-driven threats expected in a high-CO2 world. We then analyze how science is responding to the challenge posed by GEC on coral reefs and to identify gaps in research.Finally, we attempt to operationalize an overlooked component of vulnerability assessments, ecological adaptive capacity, to serve as a tool to help assess where local actions can be effective in the context of climate change. This manuscript contributes to theoretical and methodological advances to evaluate impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to GEC. It develops interdisciplinary approaches for the study of social-ecological systems and ecosystem services, targeting coral reefs as a case study. Finally, it synthesizes critically the emergence of a scientific field on solutions to GEC for coral reef social-ecological systems.