Monitoring changes in marine phytoplankton is important as they form the foundation of the marine food web and are crucial in the carbon cycle. Often Chlorophyll-a (Chl-a) is used to track changes in phytoplankton, since there are global, regular satellite-derived estimates. However, satellite sensors do not measure Chl-a directly. Instead, Chl-a is estimated from remote sensing reflectance (RRS): the ratio of upwelling radiance to the downwelling irradiance at the ocean's surface. Using a model, we show that RRS in the blue-green spectrum is likely to have a stronger and earlier climate-change-driven signal than Chl-a. This is because RRS has lower natural variability and integrates not only changes to in-water Chl-a, but also alterations in other optically important constituents. Phytoplankton community structure, which strongly affects ocean optics, is likely to show one of the clearest and most rapid signatures of changes to the base of the marine ecosystem.