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Publication Date
1 May 2022

Coupled Insights from the Palaeoenvironmental, Historical and Archaeological Archives to Support Social-Ecological Resilience and the Sustainable Development Goals

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Reference to, or integration of, palaeoenvironmental, archaeological, or historical records in the formulation of the SDGs or their indicators, however, is currently lacking. Collectively, these records provide warnings of the social-ecological costs of, and stories of long-term social-ecological resilience to, past abrupt change. 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 emphasize 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 the uptake of these data to occur, an improved understanding of their quality and potential by policymakers and managers is required.


The long-term data from paleo-records provides policy-relevant information to all three vertices of the feedback loop and their lack of consideration highlights the need to demonstrate how and why they deserve serious consideration by policymakers and managers. The need for long-term information is particularly acute if the resulting prognoses look beyond the most commonly modelled horizon of 2100, now merely a single human lifetime away. Extensive evidence demonstrates the importance of connectivity for resilience through the cultivation of extensive trade, migration, knowledge, and cultural networks that provided support in times of need. Cessation or decline of connective networks has been associated with a loss of resilience, decreased innovation and diversity and increased conflict. Increasingly fragmented landscapes can lead to biodiversity loss from which other impacts cascade. In some cases, however, increased flexibility has resulted in self-serving local elites.



Projections indicate that within 50 years temperatures will move outside the narrow de facto human tolerance envelope of the past 6000 years, emphasising the urgency of combating climate change. Although such long-term data cannot provide all answers, it does shine a critical light on what has and has not previously promoted social-ecological resilience and informs measures of progress. In conclusion, we highlight four key messages:

  1. The relationship between climate change, the SDGs, and resilience can be broadly considered a positive feedback loop. To achieve progress towards resilience, we need to travel in a clockwise direction.
  2. Variability and change over long time frames are inherent in natural, and human, systems. It is therefore essential to incorporate the information from the wealth of palaeo-records available into frameworks purporting to measure progress towards resilience.
  3. Analysis of historical and archaeological records over long time spans and in relation to specific events is critical to inform policies that aim to increase our resilience to the accumulating impacts of change.
  4. We need to very carefully assess what records of the past tell us about the potential conflict between planetary and some social goals. Where long-term records indicate persistent clashes in objectives, we need to be sufficiently bold to robustly address these challenges in order to avoid promoting an anti-clockwise journey around the feedback loop.


Point of Contact
Aixue Hu
National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)
Funding Program Area(s)
Coupled insights from the palaeoenvironmental, historical and archaeological archives to support social-ecological resilience and the sustainable development goals
Allen, K J, F Reide, C Gouramanis, B Keenan, M Stoffel, A Hu, and M Ionita. 2022. “Coupled Insights From The Palaeoenvironmental, Historical And Archaeological Archives To Support Social-Ecological Resilience And The Sustainable Development Goals”. Environmental Research Letters 17 (5). IOP Publishing: 055011. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac6967.