Communicating Hope about Societal Issues: The Case of Climate Change

Justin Rolfe-Redding

Major Professor: Edward Wile Maibach, PhD, Department of Communication

Committee Members: Emily Vraga, Xiaoquan Zhao, Teresa Myers

Merten Hall (formerly University Hall), #1204
July 30, 2019, 09:00 AM to 11:00 AM


From theology (e.g., Tillich, 1965) to neurology (Sharot et al., 2012), hope has received extensive scholarly treatment and occupies a central place in the colloquial lexicon and many aspects of culture.  The classic early psychological conception of hope is that of a general positive expectancy for goal attainment in life (Stotland, 1969).  Research has found that possessing hope about positive outcomes in one’s personal life (either generally or related to a specific topic such as the course of illness) is associated with well-being (Magaletta & Oliver, 1999) and success in goal-directed activities thanks to greater motivation and persistence in the face of barriers or initial failure (Snyder, Harris, et al., 1991).  Conversely, lack of hope (hopelessness) produces fatalistic inaction (Farran, Herth, & Popovich, 1995; Stotland, 1969). Yet, for societal issues, virtually no research has investigated what impact hope may (or may not) have on efforts by individuals to contribute to solving collective problems.  No broadly-accepted definition or measures exist for hope about societal issues, nor any established theory linking hope to attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors beyond the personal realm.  Little research in either the personal or societal issue contexts has investigated the concomitant question of how communication activity may impact hope.  The importance of these questions is perhaps nowhere more apparent than on the topic of society’s response to climate change.  The predominant discourse of climate change appears toxic to hope—full of apocalyptic imagery and pessimistic predictions—, yet the issue stands as one of the greatest and most urgent challenges of our time. This dissertation seeks to offer insight into the nature of hope about climate change and the role of communication, with a specific focus on climate change.  It proposes and tests a theory of hope as it operates in the realm of societal issues, covering hypothesized causes and consequences of hope and the role of hopeful messages.