Many studies have estimated the social cost of carbon (SCC). We critically evaluate SCC estimates, focusing on omitted cost categories, discounting, uncertainties about damage costs and risk aversion. This allows for the calculation of a lower bound to the SCC. Dominant SCC values turn out to be gross underestimates, notably, but not only, for a low discount rate. The validity of this lower bound is supported by a precautionary approach to reflect risk aversion against extreme climate change. The results justify a more stringent climate policy than is suggested by most influential past studies. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.