Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's decision to jam his proposed greenhouse emissions trading scheme into the back of the darkest cupboard he could find has unleashed his worst demons.

The media that had once admired his resolve and energy have turned on him with a vengeance, attacking him as a weakling lacking the courage of his convictions and scrambling back in panic from the attacks of Opposition leader Tony Abbott.

Not the kind of picture you want painted of you as you count down the months to this year's election, throwing overboard inconvenient or uncomfortably hard policies as you go and watching the polls narrow.

Yesterday Climate Change Minister Penny Wong was blitzing radio hosts, trying to contain the damage from Rudd's decision to avoid a head-on fight with the Opposition over climate change and defer action until the rest of the world decides what to do after the Kyoto protocol expires in 2012.

Wong could say little other than the Government had to face the political realities of a Senate that would without doubt reject the ETS legislation for a third time if asked to vote on it again, and of an international reluctance to leap into the breach.

In effect, her response was to blame the evil Abbott, the perfidious Greens (who also voted against the legislation) and wishy-washy foreigners.

It is not a defence that sits well with the nation's most influential commentators, especially not when climate change had earlier been at the vanguard of Rudd's policy agenda, and an issue on which his critics had been lambasted as cowards for refusing to face "the greatest moral and economic challenge of our time".

"As retreats go they come no bigger than Kevin Rudd's delaying of his once-cherished emissions trading scheme, probably the most spectacular backdown by a Prime Minister in the past half-century," Paul Kelly, one of Australia's most distinguished political journalists, wrote in the Australian.

"There will be many words written about Rudd's retreat but it is simply crystallised: he is a Prime Minister without the courage to champion the policy that defined him."

Political columnist Dennis Shanahan, writing in the same newspaper, was equally scathing, depicting Rudd's Government as an Administration spiralling into political and policy chaos.

He said the public and the media were sensing an air of confusion and retreat, with the ETS decision the latest and most dramatic reversal in a slash-and-burn campaign ahead of next month's federal Budget.

Shanahan said the move put Labor in line with Abbott's wait-and-see policy of hanging back until the rest of the world acted, and left Rudd with less conviction on climate change than former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, ousted by Abbott on the issue.

Australian Financial Review writer Laura Tingle was just as blunt: "If Kevin Rudd panics this much when he is ahead in the polls, one can only wonder what he would do if he was behind."

In the Sydney Morning Herald, Lenore Taylor said Labor could have gone to the polls early on the issue, or even said it would try again after a normal election.

"Instead it has distanced itself as far as possible from the scheme as it can without dropping it altogether," she wrote.

"This decision significantly compromises the Prime Minister's credibility on the issue and clouds in uncertainty business investment decisions and Australia's international negotiating position."

In Melbourne the Age editorialised: "Not for the first time, the Rudd Government has shown itself to be easily spooked by Opposition rhetoric, however flimsy it might be."

And climate change sceptic and Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt lambasted the man he called "perhaps our most deceitful Prime Minister".

"Rudd decided that the 'great moral challenge' of our time wasn't, after all," Bolt wrote.

"It was just 'a' challenge, he said. And with public trust falling in his ETS 'solution' - a great green tax on gases - he cut and ran."

Small wonder Abbott has challenged Rudd anew to go to the polls on climate change.

"He ought to have the courage of his convictions, or accept that he doesn't have any real convictions," Abbott said yesterday.