Many governments and organisations are currently aligning many aspects of their policies and practices to the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Achieving the SDGs should increase social-ecological resilience to shocks like climate change and its impacts. Here, we consider the relationship amongst the three elements—the SDGs, social-ecological resilience and climate change—as a positive feedback loop. We argue that long-term memory encoded in historical, archaeological and related ‘palaeo-data’ is central to understanding each of these elements of the feedback loop, especially when long-term fluctuations are inherent in social-ecological systems and their responses to abrupt change. Yet, there is scant reference to the valuable contribution that can be made by these data from the past in the SDGs or their targets and indicators. The historical and archaeological records emphasise the importance of some key themes running through the SDGs including how diversity, inclusion, learning and innovation can reduce vulnerability to abrupt change, and the role of connectivity. Using paleo-data, we demonstrate how changes in the extent of water-related ecosystems as measured by indicator 6.6.1 may simply be related to natural hydroclimate variability, rather than reflecting actual progress towards Target 6.6. This highlights issues associated with using SDG indicator baselines predicated on short-term and very recent data only. Within the context of the contributions from long-term data to inform the positive feedback loop, we ask whether our current inability to substantively combat anthropogenic climate change threatens achieving both the SDGS and enhanced resilience to climate change itself. We argue that long-term records are central to understanding how and what will improve resilience and enhance our ability to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. However, for uptake of these data to occur, improved understanding of their quality and potential by policymakers and managers is required.