Coral reefs are diverse ecosystems that support millions of people worldwide by providing coastal protection from waves. Climate change and human impacts are leading to degraded coral reefs and to rising sea levels, posing concerns for the protection of tropical coastal regions in the near future. We use a wave dissipation model calibrated with empirical wave data to calculate the future increase of back-reef wave height. We show that, in the near future, the structural complexity of coral reefs is more important than sea-level rise in determining the coastal protection provided by coral reefs from average waves. We also show that a significant increase in average wave heights could occur at present sea level if there is sustained degradation of benthic structural complexity. Our results highlight thatmaintaining the structural complexity of coral reefs is key to ensure coastal protection on tropical coastlines in the future.