As climate change increases the rate of environmental change and the frequency and intensity of disturbance events, selective forces intensify. However, given the complicated interplay between plasticity and selection for ecological – and thus evolutionary – outcomes, understanding the proximate signals, molecular mechanisms and the role of environmental history becomes increasingly critical for eco-evolutionary forecasting. To enhance the accuracy of our forecasting, we must characterize environmental signals at a level of resolution that is relevant to the organism, such as the microhabitat it inhabits and its intracellular conditions, while also quantifying the biological responses to these signals in the appropriate cells and tissues. In this Commentary, we provide historical context to some of the long-standing challenges in global change biology that constrain our capacity for eco-evolutionary forecasting using reef-building corals as a focal model. We then describe examples of mismatches between the scales of external signals relative to the sensors and signal transduction cascades that initiate and maintain cellular responses. Studying cellular responses at this scale is crucial because these responses are the basis of acclimation to changing environmental conditions and the potential for environmental ‘memory’ of prior or historical conditions through molecular mechanisms. To challenge the field, we outline some unresolved questions and suggest approaches to align experimental work with an organism's perception of the environment; these aspects are discussed with respect to human interventions.