Carbonaceous aerosols affect the global radiative balance by absorbing and scattering radiation, which leads to warming or cooling of the atmosphere, respectively. Black carbon is the main light-absorbing component. A portion of the organic aerosol known as brown carbon also absorbs light. The climate sensitivity to absorbing aerosols rapidly increases with altitude, but brown carbon measurements are limited in the upper troposphere. Here we present aircraft observations of vertical aerosol distributions over the continental United States in May and June 2012 to show that light-absorbing brown carbon is prevalent in the troposphere, and absorbs more short-wavelength radiation than black carbon at altitudes between 5 and 12 km. We find that brown carbon is transported to these altitudes by deep convection, and that in-cloud heterogeneous processing may produce brown carbon. Radiative transfer calculations suggest that brown carbon accounts for about 24% of combined black and brown carbon warming effect at the tropopause. Roughly two-thirds of the estimated brown carbon forcing occurs above 5 km, although most brown carbon is found below 5 km. The highest radiative absorption occurred during an event that ingested a wildfire plume. We conclude that high-altitude brown carbon from biomass burning is an unappreciated component of climate forcing.