© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.Organisms are projected to face unprecedented rates of change in future ocean conditions due to anthropogenic climate-change. At present, marine life encounters a wide range of environmental heterogeneity from natural fluctuations to mean climate change. Manipulation studies suggest that biota from more variable marine environments have more phenotypic plasticity to tolerate environmental heterogeneity. Here, we consider current strategies employed by a range of representative organisms across various habitats – from short-lived phytoplankton to long-lived corals – in response to environmental heterogeneity. We then discuss how, if and when organismal responses (acclimate/migrate/adapt) may be altered by shifts in the magnitude of the mean climate-change signal relative to that for natural fluctuations projected for coming decades. The findings from both novel climate-change modelling simulations and prior biological manipulation studies, in which natural fluctuations are superimposed on those of mean change, provide valuable insights into organismal responses to environmental heterogeneity. Manipulations reveal that different experimental outcomes are evident between climate-change treatments which include natural fluctuations vs. those which do not. Modelling simulations project that the magnitude of climate variability, along with mean climate change, will increase in coming decades, and hence environmental heterogeneity will increase, illustrating the need for more realistic biological manipulation experiments that include natural fluctuations. However, simulations also strongly suggest that the timescales over which the mean climate-change signature will become dominant, relative to natural fluctuations, will vary for individual properties, being most rapid for CO2 (~10 years from present day) to 4 decades for nutrients. We conclude that the strategies used by biota to respond to shifts in environmental heterogeneity may be complex, as they will have to physiologically straddle wide-ranging timescales in the alteration of ocean conditions, including the need to adapt to rapidly rising CO2 and also acclimate to environmental heterogeneity in more slowly changing properties such as warming.