At last weekend’s wonderful Byron Writers Festival, politics once again became a central topic.

But the burning issue was not the unlikely popularity of Kevin Rudd nor the predictable travails of Malcolm Turnbull, but the far more substantial matter of climate change. Speaker after speaker expressed frustration and disappointment at the lack of action, and their arguments were overwhelmingly endorsed by enthusiastic audiences.

Well, they would say that at the Byron Writers Festival, wouldn’t they? But despite the well-funded campaign to convince the populace that the science is not yet settled (The Australian in particular has become a gathering place for hired guns and loonies) the concern extends a lot further than the havens of northern New South Wales.

Even in the midst of the economic downturn, public support for an emissions trading system has remained fairly solid; polling in June showed 65% in favour, a majority of nearly two to one. The public is apparently ahead of the politicians in realising that global warming is not just another item on the electoral agenda, it is a clear and present danger which demands an urgent and decisive response.

Where most of our politicians have failed us — and to date the Rudd government is no exception — is that they have insisted on treating climate change not as a grim physical reality but as a political problem which can be fixed with a political solution. And political solutions invariably involve delay, negotiation and eventual compromise.

Thus the government’s approach has appeared to be that yes, climate change is a worry; it threatens drastic changes to the weather which will include fire, flood, drought, famine, pestilence and death on a huge scale. It will almost certainly lead to huge waves of climate refugees which could precipitate wars on a scale which could threaten the survival of human civilisation. Clearly something needs to be done.

But hey, let’s not get carried away. There are other interests involved, like our national advantages as a major coal producer. And after all, the shareholders in the mines and the smelters and the generators all have rights too. So we’ll have to strike a balance. And the balance in its present form means doing not much until it’s too late; and the opposition won’t even accept this gesture.

The infuriating part is that most of the angst is unnecessary. Sure, cutting down on the carbon-emitting fossil fuels will cause some short term pain and expense (and I say “will,” not “would”, because sooner or later it’s going to happen whether we like it or not). Electricity bills will rise, though not to a catastrophic extent, and some jobs would be lost. But costs will be easily manageable in an economy like Australia’s, and at the same time new opportunities will be created in more sustainable industries. The oil companies realise this: at least one is already heavily involved in the production of solar cells.

And the real point, emphasised in reports by Nicholas Stern in England and Ross Garnaut in Australia, is that the longer we procrastinate, the greater the cost and disruption will be. Malcolm Turnbull claims to be concerned about our children being burdened with debt from Rudd’s stimulus packages; he’s certainly not doing them any favours by delaying action on climate change.

And would an increase, even a big increase, in electricity bills really be so devastating anyway? History suggests not. In the last decade the price of oil actually trebled, before peaking (temporarily) in 2008. And we whinged about the cost of filling up the Holden, but we coped: in fact, as you might recall, the economy went through an unprecedented boom. It would be overly optimistic a to assume that the next big energy transition will be quite such an easy ride, but it is certainly overly pessimistic to predict the plummeting in living standards for which the opposition is apparently hoping.

But this assumes that rational argument will triumph over the politics of the situation which is in itself a pretty sanguine belief. The coalition, of course, is hopelessly confused about it all but in the end will probably pass Rudd’s scheme; if it doesn’t it will not only be inviting terrible defeat at a double-dissolution election, but will also have repudiated and humiliated its leader. Malcolm Turnbull is already in enough trouble; rejection on such a key issue would certainly make him unelectable.

But the Rudd government is far from blameless. It has already muddled and watered down the key recommendations of Ross Garnaut’s 2008 report, which was never all that vigorous to begin with. Now it seems determined to play politics with what is left. The refusal to decouple the legislation for renewable energy quotas from the emissions trading scheme is bloody-mindedness, pure and simple.

It is essential to start reducing the power companies’ reliance of coal and oil as quickly as possible. The renewable energy act would require them to get at least twenty percent of their energy from renewables — solar, wind, tide, geothermal, whatever — by 2020. This is a thoroughly useful and desirable measure in its own right and in spite of Penny Wong’s rhetoric it has nothing whatsoever to do with emissions trading. She is using the issue as a wedge, which may or may not be smart politics, but it is lousy policy. The opposition is willing, even eager, to pass the renewable energy act, and it should be encouraged to do so.

But worryingly, this is only one example of what seems to be a less than dedicated approach to climate change. Rudd’s economic stimulus package could have been a great opportunity to encourage a move to renewables, through direct grants and improved infrastructure. Instead almost all the infrastructure money went to upgrading roads, rail and ports to facilitate the export of coal to fuel the power stations of Indian and China. And when it came to boosting consumer spending, what did he do? Well, he ran down the subsidy for domestic solar power and gave us each $900 to buy a plasma television set.

So much for the greatest moral, social and economic challenge of our generation. We expected better.